South China Sea: expect more instability in 2021 as the US encourages ‘lawfare’ and conflict
- Given US interference, Asean’s growing appetite for international arbitration and little hope of concluding a code of conduct, South China Sea waters can only become more choppy and conflict-prone
Last year saw the situation in the South China Sea deteriorate as the United States, other extra-regional powers and some littoral states made waves despite the global impact of Covid-19.
The international political and economic landscape is changing. As the code of conduct consultations approach the final stages, there are leadership changes in the US and some South China Sea littoral states.
Given this background, the situation will only become more complex, volatile and prone to conflict in 2021. In the coming years, international law and rules will mainly govern how the situation evolves.
As vice-president, Biden repeatedly stressed China should abide by international rules and accept the 2016 arbitration ruling in favour of the Philippines. As president-elect, he emphasised the importance of China playing by international rules in US-China relations. In Biden’s administration, “rules diplomacy” will probably be the top priority for US policy on the South China Sea.
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Some extra-regional countries may follow the US in seeking geopolitical interests in the South China Sea with their military presence, bringing the internationalisation of the issue to a new stage.
Other claimant countries, backed by the US, are likely to take provocative actions to consolidate and expand their interests as the window narrows for the code of conduct consultations.
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With US backing and the need for post-Covid-19 economic recovery, Vietnam may capitalise on the growing political consensus in the South China Sea to once again risk pushing forward its oil and gas project in the Wanan Tan waters, known as Vanguard Bank, and in the Blue Whale gas field.
The code of conduct consultations are also mired in difficulty. Despite all the efforts since 2017 by China and Asean, the prospect of concluding consultations by the end of the year is dim. This is due to interference by some extra-regional countries, the tough positions taken by a small number of claimant countries amid demands to extend the consultation window, the fallout over the arbitration award and divergent interests.
The South China Sea dispute explained
The US is also likely to join other extra-regional countries to influence the process in new ways, whether through official statements or think tank reports.
For the countries in the region, the South China Sea is not only home but also a platform to build a maritime community with a shared future. China and Asean should put aside their disputes, forge a consensus, focus on cooperation and commit to building rules and order.
Wu Shicun is president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and chairman of the China-Southeast Asia Research Centre on the South China Sea