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Essay: The South China Sea Dispute

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  • Subject area(s): International Relations
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  • Published: December 5, 2019*
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  • The South China Sea Dispute
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The South China Sea is both the fulcrum of world trade and a crucible of conflict. There were battles in 1974 and 1988 and there have been dozens of less violent confrontations since. The US has been involved since the beginning and India has begun to take interest. The sea is not particularly rich in oil and gas resources, the military bases on the disputed Islands are not particularly ‘strategic’ since almost all could be destroyed by a single missile strike, the territorial dispute involves not six countries, not five, since Indonesia is affected although it pretends it isn’t and the ‘historic claims’ of the dispute are very modern.

Europeans came in the East Asian region as merchants and mercenaries. While the British and Dutch had their East India companies, the French and German imperial projects were state led operations from the start. The American imperial project began with the exemplary display of the gunboat diplomacy Tokyo harbor in 1853. All this territory taking by the colonial powers provided the foundations for the current boundaries in the South China Sea.

After claiming exclusive rights over several South China Sea archipelagos, Japan occupied the Pratas Islands on September 3, 1937. The Japanese Imperial Navy landed on the Spratlys in December 1938 and invaded Hainan Island the following February. Japan’s military foray into the South China Sea took place during a decade in which France’s Indochina forces had also been present in the area, surveying the islands in the early 1930s and occupying the Paracels in 1938.

With the Japanese invasion of Korea and Taiwan, and its seizure from Qing China followed by the Japanese defeat by the multinational invasion to suppress the ‘Boxer Rebellion’ the Qing dynasty was in crisis and acutely sensitive to accusations that it could not defend the country’s territory. Groups like Society to Recover the Nation’s Rights, the Society to Commemorate the National Humiliation etc. boycotted British, American, Japanese and other foreign goods. So in 1909, a Chinese government decided to turn the sovereignty of the Islands of the South China Sea into a matter of national pride for the first time. This very posturing would result in the drawing of the line that has become the ¬¬basis for China’s claims in the Sea (i.e. the U – shaped line)    ¬

For the purposes of the study of its history it can be divided into two broad eras as discussed below. In the pre modern era it was important to China from the earliest days as a vital route of trade with India, the Gulf region, Middle East and finally Europe. It has been regarded by a number of scholars as an ‘intersection of history,’ a vital sea line of communication. The concept of ‘sovereignty’ in those times would have made no sense at all as its totally anachronistic Western concept. Moreover, in the 15th century as it became clear that the sea represented a contaminating set of ideas and influences and a mere distraction from the urgent needs of defending the land borders, the maritime quest was downplayed.

The modern era comprises of the European period, the post European period, the Cold War period and finally the post Cold War period. The era began with the arrival of colonial powers in the region like the Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, British and French. A number of factors like disputes between them, the adoption of Western military practices and the residual resistance of local military leaders delayed the full Europeanization of Asia Pacific in general and South China Sea in particular. France, Britain and Netherlands were the main contenders in this very region but the level of competition was low as compared to other regions e.g. Africa.

The local protégés sometimes generated claims of their own on either the Spratly or the Paracel Islands. These were symbolic efforts largely aimed at symbolic gesturing rather than sustained presence. Furthermore both the groups of Islands were regarded as navigational hazards rather than objects of commercial value. So the French did not protest against Chinese claim on the Hainan Islands in 1922. This also marks the onset of commercial and military decline which marked a few years later of the second period of the modern era. In short the European period marks the waxing and waning of the control of various major powers of the time like Japan, France and Britain on the region.

With the Japanese defeated, there was something of a brief, flickering European resurgence in the area as some attempt was made, within severely restricted resources, to recover what had been lost. The question of the sovereignty of the islands was not high in anyone’s strategic priorities, but by the end of 1946 both the Chinese and the French had begun low-level campaigns to re-assert their claims to the Paracels and the Spratlys.

The onset of the Cold War resulted in the winding up of the French strategic presence in the region and the writing was on the wall for British and Dutch as well. With the onset of Korean War and the conflict between South and North Vietnam, the South China Sea began to be seen as a potential battle ground for struggle between the communists and Western bloc. During the Vietnam War and moreover the pressures of the war converted the Sea into a potential US lake, as the PRC couldn’t advance its interests. After the Sino Soviet split and the decay of USSR the PRC was in a better position to advance its interests in Taiwan and the South China Sea, due to its amicable relations with the US.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, the dispute reverted from being a global to “just” a regional issue. The current state centric nature of the dispute was exemplified by a number of incidents like China’s ejection of the Vietnamese from Johnson Reef in 1988, the rise of tension between China and Vietnam during July and August 1994, China’s occupation of Mischief Reef in February 1995, and local reactions to it.

China, Taiwan and Vietnam lay claim to virtually all the geographical features making up the South China Sea islands groups on the grounds of discovery, history and occupation. The Philippines and Malaysia claim parts of the group on the basis of proximity and that certain features lie on their claimed continental shelves. Brunei claims only one feature, also on the basis that it lies on Brunei’s continental shelf. An exhaustive analysis of these claims is not necessary at this point. However, the important point to note is that none of these sovereignty claims is especially compelling.


The South China Sea issue is not just about competing claims; it’s about peace and stability in the region. (ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh)

Why Conflict Transformation?

The conflict transformation approach is used in conflict and peace studies and builds on the process of conflict management and conflict resolution. In a plethora of conflict management approaches the conflict transformation approach seems to be more suitable for capturing the dynamics and developments in the SCS conflict, despite its limitations. This is because of its all inclusive approach (i.e. covers all the cycles of a conflict) as compared with others like conflict prevention, conflict management conflict resolution and peace building. In the SCS a number of tensions exist and conflict of different phases are occurring simultaneously, therefore concepts focusing on specific stages of conflict cycles fall short to get the whole picture. The approach of conflict transformation emerged in the 1990’s and a lot of efforts were made to formulate comprehensive frameworks, but due to the rapidly changing scenario like the 9/11 and the subsequent focus on terrorism and a renewed attention towards internal wars, no comprehensive theory or unified structure has ever emerged.

What is conflict transformation?

Conflict transformation is essentially those ‘actions and processes which seek to alter the various characteristics and manifestations of conflict by addressing the root causes of a particular conflict over the long term. It aims to transform negative destructive conflict into positive constructive conflict and deals with structural, behavioral and attitudinal aspects of conflict. The term refers to both the process and the completion of the process.’

There are four types of conflict transformation;

1. Context Transformations which can produce fundamental changes in the party’ s insight of the conflict scenario

2. Structural Transformation involve the changes in the basic structure of the conflict i.e. to the set of actors, their issues, contrary goals and relationships or  the entire structure (the society, economy or the state) in which the structure is rooted.

3. Actor Transformations include decisions on part of actors to change their goals or alter their general approach to conflict

4. Issue transformations include the revisiting of the stance of parties on the key issues and the method by which the parties redefine or revisit those positions in order to reach at some reasonable conclusion.

The conflict transformation (CT) is suitable for capturing the rapidly changing dynamics that can be discerned in the SCS and the relations between China and ASEAN states on the whole.


The South China Sea comprises of 200 small islets, rocks, and reefs stretching over 1,700 miles, roughly from Strait of Malacca in the South West to the Taiwan Strait in the North East. The reason for this sea as a security dilemma for all the powers in East Asia and more widely in the Asia Pacific region is due to the geographical and geo strategic position.

The rising nationalism particularly in China and Vietnam poses an explosive situation, forcing the leadership to take a firm stance on the SCS. In the early 1990’s there was a premature woe among the analysts China would behave in an aggressive manner and that Sprately area could become the “Asia’s next flash point” and projection of bleak images of the SCS and the East Asian region. These predictions were in fact deeply misperceived and grossly exaggerated, as none of them turned up.

Four facets of CT

Context Transformation

The constructive engagement between China and ASEAN has resulted in the transformation of the regional context in which the conflict is fixed. There has been a redefinition of the norms by which actors are expected to adhere to when dealing with each other and pursuing their claims. By the mid – 2000’s two significant transformations have taken place; first a shift to non – military means for pursuing claims and acceptance of Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

This transformation to using non – military means has its genesis in the Manila Declaration of 1992 in which the foreign ministers of the ASEAN emphasized ‘‘the necessity to resolve all sovereignty and jurisdictional issues pertaining to the SCS by peaceful means, without resort to force’’ and advocated all parties to exercise restraint to create a positive climate for a resolution to the conflict. By the late 2000’s the non – use of military means become the norm.

The tensions have increased since 2007, up to new heights but the DOC still remains relevant. China moderated its behavior at times when it had realized it had moved to far. China agreed to sign the guidelines for the implementation of the DOC in the SCS at the July 2011 ASEAN regional forum (ARF). This was a tacit acknowledgment of the previous rules on how to behave and to peacefully resolve disputes, in terms of rules of transformation. Nevertheless, there was little agreement on how to resolve the disputes.

So, despite some reservations the context transformation is still relevant regardless of the developments in 2007.

Structural Transformation

Structural transformations are more fundamental in nature, as these are concerned with the overarching relations Sino – ASEAN relations in which the SCS conflict is embedded. There has been a significant change as compared to a bit more than just two decades ago, when China didn’t have diplomatic relations with a number of regional states.

The change is observable in three key structures

1. Institutionalization of peaceful norms with the South East Asian countries

2. China has accepted multilateralism as basis of diplomatic relations

3. Over time economic cooperation has created a high level of economic integration and interdependence between China and ASEAN members.

The Asian financial crisis of 1997 was a critical juncture for ASEAN’s perception of China and for level of communication and the respect between the two. This resulted in the institutionalization of peaceful norms between the two post 1990s particularly after the aforementioned crisis. The most mentionable is the creation of ASEAN plus Three Cooperation initiated in December 1997, when the then nine members plus China, South Korea and Japan met to discuss opportunities for cooperation. The cooperation in ecological arena has been much laudable in 1990’s, under the umbrella of UNEP and other international organizations (IO’s).

Actor Transformation

Internal changes can also be discerned among the opposing parties in China and other South East Asian states as well. There has also been emergence of a new actor in the form of ASEAN, which has acquires effective recognition in the mid 1990’s. Moreover the relative importance of US as an actor has increased as Washington took a solid approach to the SCS in 2010.

China’s stir from the Great – Power focused foreign policy during the 1990’s was a positive development. Both the ‘good neighborliness’ policy of China and ‘constructive engagement’ of South East Asian states to normalize their relationships with China was a positive transformation.

However there has been recoiling in the recent period due to some negative developments in China and its increasing brazenness. This is because of China’s increasing confidence along with improved capabilities and unrelenting nationalism. Likewise there has been a growing interference with outside interference. In addition there have been deliberations of the prospects of increased sway of more hard lined elements in the armed forces and the Chinese Communist Party making China to more enthusiastically chase their claims.

ASEAN as an association surfaced as an actor after the Mischief Reef incident of 1995, and underlying its materialization was China’s increased assurance and motivation to participate in multiparty settings. Although initially China resisted, with the passage of time multilateralism became complementary rather supplementary.

The US didn’t involve in the SCS until 2010, although it had played an important role in regional stability for a long period. Until then, the US has been playing at a second string position with its interest limited to protection the independence of navigation.

The positive changes took place in 1990’s but in 2007 there has been a negative change in the case of China, which has resulted in Washington’s increased regional presence. The signs of a more moderate policy that was underway since 2011 have evaporated. The approach taken by President Xi is a mixed one with the surfacing of a more active foreign policy leaning towards a striving for achievement. However despite all this rhetoric it is highly unlikely that China will depart from its policy of keeping a low profile.

Issue transformation

Minor issue transformation has taken place with regards to certain emphasis on shared concern for new issues. But the underlying conflict issues have not been impacted. The issue transformation hasn’t taken place not only due to inherent sensitivity in territorial sovereignty but also due to the verity that territorial claims are limited to securing territorial claims to the area.

The US has tried to cite on concerns over freedom of navigation to legitimize its hands on approach on SCS. Still there has been no actual conflict over or threat to freedom of navigation.

A positive trend can be identified in moving on to a shared concern for new issues. Cooperation has occurred within a range of functional areas such as ecosystem, biodiversity, sea level and tide monitoring.  Functional frameworks have been established most notably due to the SCS workshops.


Conflict transformation has taken place but it is not complete. The transformations which occurred are still relevant but have considerably weakened over the time. This is true of the actor transformation. As has often been the case in East Asia no spillover has taken from cooperation in less sensitive areas to more sensitive areas.

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