Remarks at Munich Security Forum: South China Sea in 2020

February 14, 2020

Wu Shicun
Chairman of CSARC
President of National Institute for South China Sea Studies


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning!

Over the past year, the South China Sea issue has remained a focal concern within the international community, grabbing headlines in major international media outlets and placed firmly on the agendas of many bilateral and multilateral political summits and academic conferences. For 2020, although it is safe to predict that the South China Sea will remain relatively stable and controllable, negative factors and uncertainties are on a notable rise, leading to mounting pressure on the maintenance of regional stability. With faster progress in the textual negotiations of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, competitions will heat up regarding influence and leadership in regional institution building. New turbulence may be on the horizon.

Five Tendencies in the Evolution of the South China Sea

Given the growing sense of urgency among countries in and outside the region vying for their interests, we cannot exclude the possibilities of further turbulence in the South China Sea. In particular, as the U.S. takes steps to implement its Indo-Pacific strategy, the South China Sea issue will provide a major way for the U.S. to contain China from both military and security domains in the Indo-Pacific. In other words, we cannot underestimate the danger of a tumultuous South China Sea once the issue spills over and gets expanded.

First, unilateral actions by some claimants is still a major factor causing instability in the South China Sea. Some countries may push ahead with oil and gas exploration activities in blocks over which they exert claims. They may also conduct a new round of prospecting or development in other blocks with economically recoverable reserves.

Second, the COC negotiations will run into unexpected difficulties. The single draft negotiation text (SDNT) is undergoing its second reading, disagreement will emerge among claimants over geographical scopes, legally binding forces, supervision of applications and enforcement mechanisms. The U.S., Japan, Britain, Russia and other extra-regional powers, owing to their strategic and business interests, will continue to utilize their influence over the textual negotiations through various channels on issues such as oil and gas exploration and joint military exercises.

Third, legal debate over the South China Sea will be intensified again. China and the Philippines have reached consensus on shelving the decision of the South China Sea arbitration since the second half of 2016. However, people who are pro-American and against China in the Philippines keep pressuring the Duterte government on handling the disputes with China in line with the ruling. Vietnam and some other claimants still not rule out the possibilities of citing the arbitration ruling as endorsement for their own unilateral actions. Vietnamese politicians and academics clamor for submitting its disputes with China to international court or arbitration. Will Vietnam, backed by the U.S. and some European countries, take substantive steps to provoke another legal war with China? We cannot take for granted that this is just a minor probability event.

Fourth, the South China Sea issue, orchestrated by some countries, may become further “internationalized”. It is a major objective in the South China Sea policy of some claimant countries to expand and internationalize this issue. Guided by this objective, on the political and diplomatic fronts, these countries hype up the issue and claim that China poses a threat in the South China Sea at multilateral arenas; on the military front, they introduce extra-regional countries and help them expand their military presence in the South China Sea by providing access to military bases, arms procurement and joint exercises; on the economic front, they invite many western oil companies to conduct oil and gas exploration and exploitation in disputed water and “concede” and “bundle” their interests with these companies in exchange for support from those countries. Driven and pulled by these countries, the South China Sea issue has been on an irreversible path towards “internationalization”.

Fifth, the increasingly closer security cooperation between the U.S. and Vietnam may create a new “black swan” event. The U.S. needs the South China Sea issue to contain China; Viet Nam needs U.S. power to counterbalance China on this issue and consolidate U.S.’s vested interests. This is where the interests of the U.S. and Viet Nam converge. Since the China-Vietnam confrontation on the Vanguard Bank in 2019, the U.S. diplomats and media outlets have frequently voiced their support for Viet Nam. The two countries seized this opportunity to step up their defense and security cooperation on intelligence sharing, port calls by military vessels and arms aid. Such close and active coordination between a country in the region and an extra-regional power is unprecedented. Vietnam, which holds the ASEAN rotating presidency and a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council in 2020, may take new steps in “internationalizing” and “expanding” the South China Sea issue. The U.S. may take Vietnam as its new “agent” in destabilizing the South China Sea and an important base for forward deployment of its military and coast guard, step up intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and containment of Chinese activities in the South China Sea, and probably set up new barriers to the efforts by China and ASEAN countries in building a rules-based regional order.

How to deal with the South China Sea issue?

China should coordinate its “three primary relationships” with the US, ASEAN, and other claimants, handling well the “three pairs of contradictions” between international and domestic affairs, safeguarding rights and maintaining stability between regional powers and the surrounding countries. Fulfilling the “three major tasks” of the follow-up construction of the island and reefs, maritime cooperation, and the consultation over the COC text to bring stability and order in the South China Sea region.

With regard to the COC text consultation, China and ASEAN countries should actively consider making the COC legally binding and empowered with functions of mediating and resolving specific maritime disputes rather than territorial and maritime jurisdiction disputes, so that the future COC can become a true stability anchor safeguarding the peace and stability in the South China Sea.

It is also vital that China and ASEAN countries should promote exchanges and cooperation in the fields of marine tourism, maritime connectivity, marine affairs, humanities, and social affairs around the South China Sea to enhance mutual trust, resolve distinctions and to create a good external environment for the final settlement of the South China Sea issue. Thus, to achieve long-term stability in the South China Sea.

Thank you all for listening!