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The South China Sea: A prediction for 2020?

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The year 2019 ended with the “swirling waves” in the South China Sea due to increased Chinese bullying, threats, and aggressiveness against neighboring countries in the South China Sea. All the three countries directly involved in the South China Sea disputes, i.e. Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam - had to cope with violations by the Chinese coast guards, maritime militia, and survey ships.

These waves came to their peak when Chinese geological survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 escorted by many coast guard and militia vessels went deep in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf of Vietnam (sometimes only 100 nautical miles off the Vietnamese coast ) with their threats to obstruct and disturb Vietnam’s regular and established oil and gas activities.

2019 is also the year that the United States strongly engaged in the South China Sea by increasing both the frequency and the scope of the freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) as well as American military air patrol; deployment of US Coast Guard coastal combat vessels; conducting joint exercises with ASEAN countries for the first time; coordinating with allies and partners for joint exercise, and encouraging them to increase their presences in the South China Sea.

International analysts believe that with strong statements from Congressmen, senior US government officials condemning China for bullying, threatening the countries along the South China Sea, and the strong actions by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard in the area, 2019 marks a shift of US policy on the South China Sea towards supporting South China Sea littoral countries against China.

The US has adjusted its approach to the South China Sea issue due to China’s increasing violations in the South China Sea countries’ waters. China's aggressive actions not only affected the interests of littoral states in the South China Sea but also threatened US national interests here in particular as in the region in general, challenging the global strategic interests of the United States.

In particular, since the end of 2018, China requested to include in the draft Code of Conduct for parties in the South China Sea (COC) that ASEAN countries did not cooperate in exploiting natural resources in the area and not conducting joint exercises with countries outside the South China Sea. This urged the US to take stronger action on the South China Sea issue. The U.S’ allies and partners also responded to its encouragement to work together to prevent China’s expansion and monopoly in the South China Sea.

Researchers agreed that the year 2019 witnessed increased Sino-American strategic competition in the South China Sea. Studying the developments in the South China Sea in 2019, many experts have made forecasts for the South China Sea situation in 2020.

Tensions in the South China Sea temporarily cooled off in the last few months of 2019, but the constant, silent "underwater waves" can still turn into big ones at any time as China’s ploy to control and monopolize the South China Sea stays. China occupied the South China Sea to project its power to other seas and oceans to realize the goal of becoming a sea power, making China a superpower to compete with America's position.

However, developments in 2019 show that the US did not accept China to play its own rule of "big fish eat the smaller" in the South China Sea and to turn the South China Sea into its "backyard". Therefore, Sino-American strategic interest clashes in the South China Sea will continue to increase in 2020.

On the one hand, China will keep on threatening neighboring countries in the South China Sea to implement the "nine dash line" claim, creating a fait accompli in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China will continue its "carrot and stick" policy, pressuring related countries to promote the so-called "joint exploitation" according to Chinese plan, intensifying the differences, dividing, and influencing ASEAN countries on the South China Sea issue, forcing ASEAN countries to accelerate the COC negotiation in its favor.

From that perspective, Beijing will apparently not give up using power to coerce countries in the region on the South China Sea issue. However, in 2020, China might have to deal with domestic problems, from the economic recession caused by the trade war with the US to the situation in Hong Kong, so China will be more likely to be more cautious in its actions in the South China Sea.

Not accepting China's monopoly of the South China Sea, the United States will engage further in the region, strengthen coordination with allies and partners to prevent China’s expansion, promote the rule of law in the South China Sea, support coastal countries in the area in enhancing the maritime management capacity as well as the ASEAN bloc in promoting ASEAN's centrality in the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea…

Many experts believe that competition between China and the US will surely have impacts on tension resolution in the South China Sea and stability in the region. The Sino-American competition carries risks of military confrontation between the two powers, which could undermine peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

However, both China and the US do not want to escalate tension; thus, they might try to manage their competition within an acceptable threshold and maintain it throughout 2020. From a different angle, Sino-American competition may benefit Southeast Asian countries, who are trying to find equilibrium in this competition, staying out of its range in the best way possible, while still gaining benefits from both sides.

Particularly, in 2020, Vietnam, the country that shows the most resolve against China in the South China Sea issue, will be the Chair of ASEAN, and a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This provides an opportunity for Vietnam to promote discussions on the South China Sea issue at these forums. In order to play its role best, Vietnam should not avoid the sensitive issues to China, maybe even taking the lead because the South China Sea issue is Vietnam’s keen interest.

Specifically, Vietnam can surely use its position to promote the adoption of its proposed terms in a single COC draft negotiation document. In this document, Vietnam has made the most comprehensive and detailed proposals, especially in ways to build trust and security in the South China Sea.

Vietnam should work closely with the Philippines because it is the country that balances ASEAN relations with China until 2021. During the time the Philippines filed the lawsuit against China on the South China Sea issue, Vietnam coordinated well with it on related issues. With that in mind, Vietnam can work well with the Philippines to advance issues that both Vietnam and the Philippines have mutual interests.

Vietnam also needs to take advantage of the role of the host country of the meetings within the ASEAN framework to collect the support of ASEAN's partners for its position on the South China Sea issue such as the United States, India, Japan, Australia, the EU, etc. An agenda that Vietnam can gather support among countries both in and outside the region is the uphold of rule of law and the construction of rules-based order in the South China Sea, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the process of conflict resolution using legal actions, which can be incorporated with the Arbitration’s award on July 12th, 2016.

Vietnam could even propose to include the topic of rule-of-law, the UNCLOS, and the building of rules-based order in the South China Sea into a discussion agenda at meetings in ASEAN framework. With this approach, even Cambodia which has been under China’s influence on the issue of the South China Sea cannot shy away because it just joined the UNCLOS in December 2019.

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