Every country definitely has its own territorial borders through sea, land, and air. But, until now, there are still countries that violate and trespass. As many appear in the news, China recently actualized it towards countries around the South China Sea like the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Instead of apologizing, China is so confident that it wasn’t doing anything wrong.
Otherwise, countries around the South China Sea suffered disadvantage. China’s confidant came from the Nine Dash Line, provision that was made by China itself. Because of this provision, China has the right of 2 million km2 South China Sea where its 90% area claims as its historical maritime zone (Irawan Saptop Adhi, 2021). Because of that, countries’ sea area around there definitely aggrieved, like 80% sea area of Philippines and Malaysia, 50% of Vietnam, and 90% of Brunei Darussalam, also 30% of Indonesia (Wangi Sinintya Mangkuto, 2020).
Theoretical Framework: The Realism School of Thought
Realism is one of the prominent and oldest schools of thought in International Relations. This perspective posits that the states are the main unit in the anarchic international system and to maintain its survival, the states have to rely on their own power and capacity to engage in international politics. They need to call upon their power, primarily the hard power, as their ratio ultima regum to attain its interest (increasing their power) and ensure its survival.
Realism is known for its 3S that make up for its crucial points. The 3S being Survival (The state’s raison d’etat along with its other interests), Self-help (how it views the international system as anarchic), and Statism (how states are the main actors in the anarchic realm) (Baylis et al., 2014).
Another variant of realism would be neorealism or structural realism. Unlike classical realism that puts an emphasis on human nature as the driving force, neorealism emphasizes how the international system anarchic nature as the main force that fosters fear and suspicion that later on would push the states to engage in harsh realpolitik. The pressure from the system would drive the states to act in two categories. The two being the offensive realists (states who seek to maximize their power and perhaps become a hegemon) and the defensive realists (those who seek an adequate amount of power to defend itself as they believe too much power is unwise) (Dunne et al., 2013). Those who fall into the offensive groups would be involved in numerous overtures to procure and display its power.
China’s Projects in the Region
Recently, China has been accentuating its presence in the South China Sea through numerous activities. These activities range from exploration or exploitation of the natural resources there (through establishing oil rigs or fishing) to building up the area itself. The former can be seen through numerous engagements where Chinese fishing vessels would fish in neighboring countries’ seas accompanied by their coast guards. This would lead to numerous clashes between the Chinese convoys and local vessels, be that the local fishermen or the local coast guards. It wouldn’t be a surprise when in one of the clashes the small vessels would take the lion’s share of the damages. When confronted about their action, China would simply reverse the blame by stating that its those small vessels who were trespassing China’s water, such was the case for Vietnam (Reuters, 2020).
Another would be the militarization of artificial islands that were made through reclamations. Although some similar actions have been done previously by the other claimant states, for the case of China it’s different because of its nature (Buszynski, 2016). The offensive nature surrounding the militarization would be due to China’s interest in claiming the area. Considering the status of power as one of the rising powers and its huge economic ties with Asean can be taken as the driving force behind its aggressive moves.
These projects China is working on are some examples of power building in the lense of realism. China’s aim at being a hegemon in the region may be arguable, but after U.S. foreign policy outlook changes following the fall of Afghanistan and a new focus to South East Asia, it would certainly be something to be considered. More intense efforts to strengthen its presence would certainly be done especially looking at how the U.S. has been lobbying the Asean countries.
The States of SEA’s Response
In Vietnam, numerous protests have risen over the years in response to China’s intrusion in the territory. Take for example the eleven weeks of protests in 2011 (in response to China’s violation of Vietnam’s EEZ) and the violent riots in 2014 (after China’s arrival with an oil rig on Vietnamese water and its clash with the local authorities) as the proof of how infuriated the Vietnamese public are. in viewing China’s work.(Hoang, 2019). Vietnam, understanding the stake on the issue, its ties with China and its own sovereignty, would play an interesting game of cooperating and making a voice against China.
In 2016, the Philippines brought this issue to the arbitral tribunal under the basis of United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This step was taken due to China’s insistence in maintaining its presence in Philippines water through exploiting the natural resources there. The tribunal resulted in a ruling that favored Philippine’s claim and deemed China’s justification, as in its historical claim or nine dash lines, as invalid and unlawful. Unfortunately this result didn’t push China to abandon its claim rather it merely ignored the result and to this day, still continues on with its business in the region. (Campbell & Salidjanova, 2016).
Many of the states, either the claimant or the neutral ones, use the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as the legal basis in dealing with the South China Sea dispute. The resort to UNCLOS as the legitimate basis in seeing to whom the area may belong thus rejecting the nine dash line/historical claim from China. Some of the states even followed the Philippine’s tribunal by sending their respective observers or making statements of interest following the result. Despite how others may think of it as permissive, it has proven to be otherwise. Indonesia, for example, despite not being a claimant state has shown a stern position by stating that China’s claim as unlawful and how it sees no point in further negotiation with it (Siregar, 2020).
Aside from various reactions from the South East Asian countries, the dispute also attracts some outsiders, one of them being the U.S.. Being one of the major powers in the current international system, the U.S. has left numerous footprints throughout the globe, from the jungles of Vietnam to the desert of Afghanistan. All of those prior involvements in foreign businesses were all done to serve their interest. Either to maintain a foothold abroad or assisting an ally, they also served as a stage to display their power and capabilities.
In reacting to the South China Sea dispute, the U.S. quickly made some steps to accentuate its position. The U.S. has initiated some operations, one of them being the Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in 2017. By utilizing its vessels, the U.S. would set up patrols in the disputed territory to assert freedom of navigation. It is no surprise that such action resulted in negative responses from China who considered it a violation of its sovereignty & security (Panda, 2018).
Aside from that, the U.S. is also active in engaging the ASEAN countries, especially the claimant states, in conveying its position and support for them. In 2018, the USS Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Vietnam after decades of U.S. carrier absence there. The arrival in the disputed area became a chance for the U.S. to show its naval power and diplomatic capacity to once again partner up with Vietnam, one of the claimant states, in dealing with the issue (Olson, 2020). The U.S. also took notice of Malaysia and Indonesia as shown in Anthony Blinken’s (U.S. Secretary of State) visit in 2021. In that diplomatic trip, he informed how the U.S. is interested in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region and forging stronger ties with the countries there (Eshanasir, 2021).
How China has been accentuating its presence in the region and its insistent claim on the South China Sea can be understood from a realist perspective. The urge to be a hegemon in the region, the balance of power in it (how it surprasses the SEA countries), and after seeing its rival recent attention on that vary region are the factors that can be attributed as why it’s in China’s best interest to do so. Despite how many have criticized it as unlawful or so, in how realism sees things, they all don’t matter. At the end of the day, what would matter here is China’s position in the balance of power in the region and the overall power China is holding. Both of them would surely benefit from a continued presence in the South China Sea.
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Abel Josafat Manullang is an international Relations student of Padjadjaran University and Excel Stephen is an economic student of Gadjah Mada University. They can be found on Instagram with the username @abel_jman and @excel.stphn