By Wu Shicun
The year 2020 was not ordinary for the South China Sea. In the face of the common enemy of the COVID-19 pandemic, China and ASEAN countries were committed to properly managing maritime disputes, promoting pragmatic cooperation, and advancing consultations on the Code of Conduct(COC) in the South China Sea. However, some countries outside the region, unhappy to see a peaceful and stable South China Sea, kept creating new troubles in the region.
Fortunately, China and ASEAN countries stayed the course of handling disputes through dialogue, increasing mutual trust through cooperation, and maintaining lasting peace and security in the South China Sea through rules-making. That’s how they have managed to keep the regional security situation generally stable and controllable.
Looking ahead, the security situation in the South China Sea offers much to expect. The year 2021 will introduce a new stage of the COC consultations when China will consolidate or establish the bilateral maritime issue consultation mechanisms with the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia in order to jointly improve the management of disputes and boost practical cooperation on the sea. In particular, negotiations on jointly developing oil and gas resources in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines are deepening, promising positive progress this year. Meanwhile, China, leveraging its construction achievements on islands and reefs in the South China Sea, will provide the international community with more public services and goods. All these positive factors will add more stability to the security situation in the region. The recent phone call between the presidents of China and the US also points to high expectations from the world for benign interaction between the two countries on the South China Sea issue.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration has also released aggressive messages about China on several recent occasions. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if the new administration doesn’t right the wrong South China Sea policy implemented during Trump’s presidensy, security prospects in the region will once again be clouded by murky prospects.
First of all, for traditional geopolitical calculations, the US is likely to continue competing and contending with China in military and security domains in the South China Sea with diversified approaches, aiming to maintain its absolute military superiority in West Pacific and offset China’s maritime buildup and island and reef construction results. As such, the Biden administration's policy toward the South China Sea is expected to opt for maintaining regular, high-frequency “freedom of navigation operations” in the waters and intensive military reconnaissance or deterrence activities by various ships and aircraft.
Second, the Biden administration seems to have a mind to respond to the so-called “China challenge” by reshaping its international leadership, tightening the ties with allies, and exerting pressure along with the allies and partners. The Philippines, Japan, Australia, the UK, and Vietnam may be the primary targets it will woo in this process.
Third, regional countries involved in the South China Sea issue may be instigated by the US to take unilateral actions to create an “undertow” in the region.
The South China Sea issue is so long-lasting and so complicated that any quick resolution is impossible. There are both positive and negative factors at present, and how to keep the maritime security situation from worsening is a common challenge faced by all countries in the region.
Asian countries’ history of fighting colonialism and foreign aggression and regional countries’ successful experience in cooperation and development have proved that the only way to ensure lasting peace and security in the South China Sea is for them to resist foreign interference, stand by each other through mutual help, and jointly forge a regional security order based on international law and aimed at common security. Any unilateral operation and negative foreign intervention in this process will only undermine the political mutual trust among countries involved, dampen their wish for maritime cooperation, and erode the foundation for peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The US is the prime external factor of this issue. The China-US relationship is standing at a historical crossroads. The way it goes will largely depend on how the American side will view this relationship and what choice it will make, one that will have a significant bearing on the future security situation in the South China Sea.
(The author is president of China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, chairman of the board of governors of China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea)
Editor's note: This article is originally published on huanqiu.com, and is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn.