Has it been recently that "the South China Sea is still peaceful?"

From perspective of FrenchOverthe last year, since August 2018, China and ASEAN countries have reached the single draft negotiating text on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) and after that China has been propagating to the public opinion that "the South China Sea is still peaceful", causing public opinion in and outside the region to mistakenly believe that the South China Sea is truly peaceful and therefore somewhat distracting. But the truth is not so. In fact, many of China's actions have made the South China Sea situation still very complicated, attracting attention and monitoring not only from regional researchers but also from the European strategic ones. Recently, several French strategic research agencies have made assessment of what China is doing in the South China Sea. Accordingly, China has been involving in the follows:

Firstly, China still does not give up its ambitions in the South China Sea.

In 2017 and 2018, China took a less aggressive stance, but it has not given up its ambition to control the South China Sea. The country has been constantly militarizing its occupied reefs or rocks, and constructing runways that can accommodate strategic bombers, developing air defense capabilities, and observation facilities (radar) and building port infrastructure. In May 2018, for the first time, China's H6K strategic bomber, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, took off and landed in Woody Island in the Paracel Islands to assert China’s controlto this archipelago. Previously, in April 2018, China deployed sea-to-earth and earth-to-air missiles on man-made islands in the SpratlyIslands, which they are aggressively accreting and militarizing, including FieryCross Reef and Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

These actions of China over the geographic features of the Paracel and Spratly Islands have allowed Beijing to expand its ability to show off its power as far as Indonesia and the South Pacific border, as well as to increase intensified air patrols and air force patrols. From a strategic point of view, a Chinese anti-access / denial (A2/AD) strategy to increase its scope of action in Asia, that the South China Sea could be turned into a bastion in cases of conflict to protect islands far from the continent, especially to protect small-sized islands, is extremely delusional.

Global Times, a Hong Kong-based pro-China newspaper, said that “China has the right to build whatever it deems necessary in the South China Sea to protect national interests and security”. Beijing also publicly stated that its accretion and militarization activities carried out in 2017 were reasonable and plausible, despite commitments with neighboring Southeast Asian countries on negotiating COC.

Besides, one of Chinese leaders’priorities is the maritime expansion strategy in the South China Sea. It is one of the most important tasks assigned to the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) which is always in a battle-ready position.

Although China has been more cautious since 2016, that hasn't stopped the on-going tensions in the South China Sea. In the face of increased Chinese maneuvers in the region resulting in presence of naval vessels and police forces in the region, maritime strikes have been increased in number, of which several are related tothe US. China's naval power is constantly growing. Currently, China has become the country that has the largest marine police force in the world, with more than 200 police ships, many of which are newly built with a tonnage of more than 1,500 tons. Since December 2018, the Chinese Coast Guard has been transferred, under the direction of Chinese Central Military Commission.

Secondly, China has created many strategic challenges for multiple countries in the region.

Although it is not directly related to China's territorial claims, Indonesia has reaffirmed its desire to strengthen the protection of sovereignty at sea, especially that related to the exploitation of aquatic and petroleumpotentialresources. In 2017, Indonesia released a National Map, in which it renamed the area south of the South China Sea to the North Natuna Sea to assert its territorial waters.

Malaysia had always given priority to a stance that is less confrontational with China, but since Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir returned to power in 2018, the government has repeatedly reiterated its opposition to China’s concept of the "nine-dash line" that Beijing declared, and reaffirmed China's desire to respect the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982 UNCLOS) and to resolve all disputes with related parties in the area using negotiation methods. The issue of the South China Sea plays a vital role for Malaysia, because it is divided into two parts between East Malaysia and Malaysian peninsular.

For its part, the Philippines has always been at the forefront of confrontations with China over the South China Sea issue, although President Duterte's rise to power in 2016 has somewhat changed the course of relations with China. Duterte has chosen to move closer to Beijing and does not require the enforcement of the ruling of the International Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Law of the Sea (PCA). Since Duterte became President of the Philippines, many of the highest-level exchanges have taken place between Beijing and Manila, notably including Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the Philippines in 2018. With a desire to take advantage of Beijing's economic incentives, the Philippine President affirmed that he could not use force to oppose Chinese claims, especially regarding Scarborough Shoal, but he also sought to maintain a balance line with other regional powers, especially with Australia and Japan. Reportedly, Japan has provided coast guard patrol boats to the Philippines in a plan to help it strengthen its military capabilities at sea.

Similarly, relationship between the Philippines and the United States has not been broken, but has been strengthened since Donald Trump came to power, especially with the United States' deployment of troops to the Philippines to counter Islamic rebels in Mindanao, south of the Philippines in 2017.

Particularly, Vietnam has always considered the issue of sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea as a top strategic concern. Accordingly, Vietnam is facing multi-dimensional challenges related to territorial sovereignty, especially Beijing's pressure to prohibit all exploration activities in areas where China is claiming sovereignty,in contrast, China conducts exploration activities in the areas it controls regardless the scope of international law.

In addition to territorial challenges, the delimitation of an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is also an important issue for Vietnam. Most recently, from July 2019 until now, China has blatantly sent Haiyang Dizhi 8 geological survey vessel into the sea in south region of the South China Sea, within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and 200 nautical-mile continental shelfof Vietnam. Like the Philippines, given the aggressive atcs of China, Vietnam has pursued a positive policy, balancing the strategy with major powers inside and outside the region.

Finally, in addition to the exploitation of oil resources that require expensive technology investments, the protection of fishing areas against Chinese intrusions has become an important issue for all entities inside and outside the area.

Thirdly, there are steps to alter the status quo to realize the intention to control the South China Sea.

China has mobilized a range of different means to change the status quo in the South China Sea and the East China Sea but does not exceed the limits to avoid the risk of external intervention. China ratified 1982UNCLOS in 1996, but it still held its former position - this is reflected in Chinese law on special economic zones and continental shelves adopted by China’s National Assembly on June 20, 1998.

China's position on the implementation of 1982UNCLOS clearly shows how Beijing asserts its position in international relations. Although China signed and ratified 1982UNCLOS, it seems that its adherence to the committed rules in practice depends on the correlation of volatile capital and the interests that the Chinese government determines.

Similarly, with even weaker legal foundations, China is trying to expand the concept of "historical sovereignty" to gradually impose its influence in the South China Sea and East China Sea. In addition to conducting illegal leveling, reclaiming and building of the geographic features in these waters to strengthen its territorial claims, China also uses legal means to change the stance of neighboring countries towards recognizing an undeniable new reality.

Despite these efforts, Beijing's strategy has encountered many failures, especially the PCA awards of June 12, 2016 - considered as the biggest failure of Beijing legally and harms China's image. The ruling has been well received and welcomed around the world, especially in Southeast Asia and Japan, promoting the spirit of international law and further confirming China's isolation in the South China Sea issue.

Especially, despite attractiveness of "Silk Road" projects aiming at regaining the support of multiple countries in the region, Beijing's aggressive strategy since Xi Jinping took power has provoked regional coping strategies to rebalance power with China.

Within ASEAN, regional initiatives have been launched, though not openly targeting Beijing for diplomatic reasons, but also to prevent their advance in the region. For its part, Indonesia has developed a new ocean policy that emphasizes the task of sea defense, maintaining order and security against new risks related to the marine environment and travel activities in the South China Sea. In Malaysia, the country's hard-line stance toward China is underpinned by the return to power of Prime Minister Mahathir - who has a less-mediated stance with Beijing and has canceled contractshis predecessor signed with Beijing as part of projects under the "Belt and Road" initiative. At the same time, the Malaysian government also plans to strengthen coastal protection capacity with new means to cope with Chinese intrusions.

Finally, in June 2017, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines conducted joint patrols at sea, officially to combat piracy in the Sulawesi area, but also for better control of the maritime boundaries of these three countries, especially to combat the invasion by Chinese fishing boats. Beijing was aware of the risks, so it borrowed its name of "historic fishing rights" to protest that.

Fourthly, creating the risk of "internationalization" of conflict in the South China Sea.

While China hopes to prevent the strong reactions of its neighbors regarding tensions in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, which is beneficial to them due to its overwhelming economic power compared to all its neighbors, the world has seen conflicting "internationalization" trends, especially since the PCA ruled on maritime disputes between the Philippines and China. Anti-China responses and measures have moved beyond the region.

In the US, President Donald Trump advocates for the first protection of US interests (in the spirit of the slogan "America first") and if in the months after Trump was elected US president, people were concerned that the South China Sea and the East China Sea will become pawns in a game between Washington and Beijing on trade and North Korea issues, it is America's strategic tenacity that frustrates China.

The incident in September 2018 between a Chinese ship and an American ship in the South China Sea prompted the United States to confirm its presence in the sea, especially by resumingthe freedom of navigation operations(FONOPs) in the waters claimed by Beijing. China sees this move of the US as a provocation, affecting its sovereignty and "vital interests", thus stimulating China to increase military activities in the South China Sea, especially in military bases on artificial islands it illegally built. In 2018, Washington also withdrew its invitation to China to participate in the Pacific Rim naval exercise (RIMPAC) - an international joint drill hosted by the United States, with the participation of more than 20 countries around the world. Two years ago, the United States invited China to participate in this joint drill as a sign of openness. The United States also continues its strategy of getting closer to regional countries that are dealing with Chinese actions, especially Vietnam and the Philippines.

This US strategy was implemented with the help of Japanese allies. It is known that since the introduction of a new regime of more flexible military exports in 2014, Japan has provided military equipment such as patrol boats for Vietnamese and Philippine Coast Guardsas well ass participated in training for Vietnamese submarines. In particular, the new defense law passed by Japan in 2015 and 2016 allowed Japanese defense forces to participate in joint patrols, including in the South China Sea. In the fall of 2018, Japan brought a submarine to the South China Sea for the first time.

In fact, Japan shares the same concerns with its Southeast Asian neighbors over China's advances in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In 2018, Tokyo adopted a new direction to develop the capabilities of Japanese defense force, simultaneously it planned to upgrade Izumo destroyer to an aircraft carrier. At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2018, Japan's Defense Minister also expressed a very strong stance on the South China Sea issue and reiterated the PCA's ruling.

Despite geographical distance, Europe also changed its stance towards a more unfavorable outcome for China. European countries have stepped up their presence in the South China Sea within the European Union's China restraint policy (EU) and continue to have a stronger presence in the Indo-Pacific region, including the implementation of sea operations against Chinese disturbing activities in the region. In a discussion of the EU's role in the region, Ms. Liselotte Odgaard, an expert at the Hudson Institute, a research organization in Washington (USA), said: “The EU will have a common policy line to combat China's expansion in the South China Sea and the promotion of freedom of navigation". China's strategy in the South China Sea has also strongly contributed to prompting Europe to reconsider basic principles, including the principle of resolving conflicts by peaceful means, to which EU attaches special importance.

Among the European countries most actively involved in the South China Sea issue, France is the leading country (which has many territories in the Indian Ocean - Pacific Ocean and thus, has direct interests in the region and maintained there outpost forces). France has made tough statements with concrete measures to deal with China. In June 2018, in Singapore, French Defense Minister Florence Parly reiterated that the country always respected the principle of freedom of movement in all seas. After that, a speech of President Emmanuel Macron in Australia this year on signing a submarine sale contract with Australia, referring to France's participation in the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" initiative is an answer to China's aggressive maritime strategy. Similarly, that French and British ships pass through the South China Sea despite warnings from Chinese vessels, is to reaffirm rules of freedom of navigation.

Such assessments by French strategic researchers clearly show that tensions in the South China Sea have not diminished, even though in the past 2 years China has not taken any new invasion actions for disputed maritime features. But in fact, these moves of China are only tactical to appease its neighbors, to minimize negative consequences on China's image and to prevent the formation of alliances inside and outside the region. The causes of tensions still exist such as disputes related to resources, energy, access to fishing grounds, etc. Besides, US-China competition is still taking place in the South China Sea. In the point of view of Beijing, unpredictability of the US President may increase risk of problems and force China to be more cautious. Theoretically, a fully controlled East China Sea could serve as a safe "buffer zone" for them, but this prospect is far from Beijing's true capabilities in the event of a conflict. The most likely scenario in the short term is stability with alternating periods of tensions and peace, depending on reaction of Beijing's "rivals", led by the United States.