Policy Alert: South China Sea Disputes is at Center of Debates by Asian Powers

Policy Alert: South China Sea Disputes is at Center of Debates by Asian Powers

As the United States and China meet this week for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, territorial disputes in the South China Sea will be near the top of the agenda. This event follows last month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore where U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and several other Asian powers expressed strong concerns over China’s now completed island-building reclamation efforts in disputed waters.

This Policy Alert is the first in a series on Energy and Maritime Security for the Rising Powers Initiative’s new project: The Linkages between Energy Security and Maritime Strategies in the Indo-Pacific. The research effort looks at how energy security debates shape and influence maritime strategies and vice-versa in China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam and the implications of these linkages for U.S. policy toward the region.


Secretary Carter’s address to the Shangri-La Dialogue presented his vision for a “regional architecture” to tackle five major challenges: “long-standing rules and norms, strengthening our institutions, modernizing alliances, enhancing capabilities and improving connectivity.”

The tense security environment has driven many U.S. allies and other powers in the Asia-Pacific to increase their purchase of U.S. defense technologies and equipment.


While several countries in the past have constructed artificial islands in South China Sea, China’s efforts are on a massive scale with “more new island surface [in the last 18 months] than all other nations have constructed throughout history.” During the Shangri-La Dialogue, however, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo pushed back against those who painted a negative picture of China’s maritime deeds:

  • The admiral argued “the situation in the South China Sea is on the whole peaceful and stable, and there has never been an issue with the freedom of navigation.”
  • China’s first white paper on military strategy released in late-May stated an “active defense” whereby “we will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked.” This characterization was echoed by Zhao Xiaozhuo, a researcher with the Chinese Army’s Academy of Military Science, who stressed “China’s great restraint” in the face of outside pressure.

While Chinese officials rejected calls to stop its reclamation project at the Singapore summit, Beijing later clarified on June 16 that it would soon end island-building activities in the South China Sea but not development of military and civilian facilities on the existing sites:

In response to outside pressure, several media outlets and China-based scholars turned the focus on the United States and the actions of its allies in the region:

  • Wang Hui, senior writer at China Daily, protested U.S. involvement in the disputed waters as “counterproductive” and ultimately risking military confrontation. This view was echoed by China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai.
  • The Global Times editorialized that Carter’s remarks were “tarnishing China’s image to scare ASEAN” in hopes of driving “a wedge into the cooperation between China and the ASEAN countries.”


When Carter visited Indian leaders in early June, one of the top items on the agenda was the mounting tensions in the South China Sea, a continuation from President Obama’s January trip to the country and an October 2014 India-U.S. joint statement on “rising tensions over maritime territorial disputes” in the South China Sea.

Several local media outlets and commentators noted India’s low level of participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue and questioned New Delhi’s commitment to responding to China:


Tokyo has closely followed China’s activities in the disputed waters and made efforts at several international fora to keep the issue in the spotlight:

  • While at the recent G-7 meeting, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought to raise Asia’s importance on the agenda and achieved a joint statement by leaders calling for a “rules-based maritime order and achieving maritime security.” At the Shangri-La Dialogue, China’s Admiral Sun Jianguo and the Director General of the Japanese Defense Policy Bureau Hideshi Tokuchi expressed interest in a Memorandum of Understanding on a “maritime and aerial crisis liaison mechanism” to diffuse tensions in the region such as the Diayou/Senkaku Islands dispute.

The United States, Japan, and the Philippines held joint maritime exercises this week near the disputed waters. Several commentators provided their thoughts on these regional security efforts:

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun encouraged Japanese legislators to “enhance deterrence by expanding the roles of the [Self Defense Force]” against “China’s military buildup and maritime defense.” The Asahi Shimbun editorialized that while Japan needs to adjust its security strategies to “reflect changing global energy landscape,” the “world oil market is not driven by concerns about security threats posed by China.”
  • On the other hand, The Mainichi pushed back on calls for the expansion of the Japan’s military mission, warning U.S.-led containment strategies against China may further mistrust between Tokyo and Beijing and harm economic growth. The Asahi Shimbun noted the “worrisome” expansion of Southeast Asian states’ naval power in response to China and how U.S. military operations could “further exacerbate tensions in the area.”


Several commentators and media sources in the Philippines expressed anxiety about China’s actions in the region and the U.S. response:

  • Ana Marie Pamintuan, editor-in-chief for The Philippine Star, reported on how Beijing’s “expansive territorial claims” could one day disrupt critical ASEAN trade and supply lines. Elfren S. Cruz, a columnist for The Philippine Star, wrote that if the United States backs down to China’s “core interests of becoming the superpower in Asia,” then America “will lose its superpower position.” He warned some “countries – Japan, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia – will form a defensive alliance to protect themselves.”
  • Godofredo Roperos, a columnist for the Sun Star Cebu, hoped the Philippines would receive a “favorable ruling from [the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in early 2016]” as it will “be a big victory diplomatically even if China will not recognize the decision.”

In contrast, other commentators warned that the Philippines would suffer in any U.S.-China conflict if Manila continued its own aggressive posture:

  • The Tribune lamented that the Philippines were “moving based on which string the U.S. pulls that mostly consists of further incensing China and contributing to the already heated situation.”
  • The Manila Times scolded Philippines President Benigno Aquino for issuing an “unnecessary provocation of China” and argued the “disputed territories issue should not define our relations with China” since the country has “more to gain from befriending China than by antagonizing it.”


At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Vietnam’s Deputy Defense Minister attributed the elevated profile of the disputed waters on the agenda to China’s recent flurry of activity, which prompted a range of responses:

  • Vietnam’s Rear Admiral Le Ke Lam stressed that his country considers “China’s act of turning the reefs of Vietnam that it illegally occupies into military outposts is very dangerous, seriously affecting security in the region and the world.”
  • In an interview with VietNamNet Bridge, Tran Cong Truc, former chief of the Government’s Border Committee, warned the risk of escalation in the region was “pretty high, especially when China is now ignoring all multilateral and bilateral political agreements.”

In an interview with Vietnam’s Youth Online [article in Vietnamese], RPI project scholar Alexander Vuving compared China’s actions to the philosophy behind Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, naming that the supreme art of war is to “subdue the enemy without fighting”:

  • He argued Beijing’s island reclamation efforts and legal maneuvering aim to create new conditions in the South China Sea where it can claim an exclusive economic zone and maintain control without resorting to military force.

Before traveling to India, Ashton Carter used his first trip to Vietnam as defense secretary to urge all countries in the region – including his host nation – to halt their land reclamation projects:

  • Carter and Vietnam’s General Phung Quang Thanh signed a Joint Vision Statement whereby the United States pledged support for Hanoi’s peacekeeping training and operations.
  • Furthermore, Vietnam’s Major General Le Van Cuong, former director of the Strategy Institute, welcomed the “strong” U.S. response, which “makes China more shy when doing brazen actions.”


Be sure to follow the RPI’s Energy Security and Maritime Debates in Asia project as these issues evolve. Stay connected on Twitter at @Westmyer or visit the project website and blog at http://www.risingpowersinitiative.org/projects/energy-maritime.

By Timothy Westmyer, Program and Research Assistant, Rising Powers Initiative