Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea: War on the Horizon?
Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea | Outlook

Uncertainty in the South China Sea in the Wake of Trump’s Inauguration: The Risk of Escalating Rhetoric

At the end of this first edition of Global Challenges it is difficult to come to a definitive conclusion. Tensions and scuffles in the region are bound to continue even though their escalation into a major conflict, though not impossible, remains rather unlikely.

An explosive cocktail of factors does seem to justify an alarmist outlook. This includes the United States’ nervousness about the shifting regional balance of power and wavering about the extent of its commitment, China’s uncompromising stance on its sovereignty claims and contentious militarisation of the Spratlys, the regional amplification of nationalism and military spending, the versatility of regional leaders such as Philippine President Duterte, and the dysfunctionality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) in offering solutions.

These factors provide for a strained context in which lesser and more conjectural encroachments triggered, for instance, by increasing numbers of naval operations, reconnaissance flights and use of drones, the bullying of merchant or fishing vessels by patrolling fleets, or the unchecked drilling for oil and gas in contested maritime zones could transform into more serious military conflicts.

However, it also emerges clearly from the present dossier that a series of seminal trends are working in the opposite direction, making the picture less dramatic. The strategic partnership concluded in the wake of Mao and Nixon’s rapprochement has left a habitus of cooperation between China and the United States that still proves influential despite the growing rivalry between the two superpowers. More importantly, all regional actors, including China, have an intrinsic interest in pursuing a more collaborative agenda because of their economic interdependence and shared concern not to jeopardise the all-important trading routes and commons of the South China Sea.

US-Sino Relation Will Prove Crucial for the Region

Even though lesser powers like Vietnam or the Philippines are likely to continue to play a key role in the South China Sea, its fate lies above all in the hands of China and the United States.

China has made its determination clear to secure its near seas and enforce a security agenda commensurate to its political and economic ascent, with the ultimate aim China has made its determination clear to secure its near seas and enforce a security agenda commensurate to its political and economic ascent, with the ultimate aim of forever leaving behind the historical trauma of vulnerability and foreign occupation. of forever leaving behind the historical trauma of vulnerability and foreign occupation.

The Chinese leadership is aiming to maximise its strategic positioning in the longue durée, which entails unilaterally imposing strategic moves as in the case of the Spratlys. It is, however, unlikely that China will be crossing red lines and substantially encroach on core US interests in the region, for instance by implementing an Air Defence Identification Zone as in the East China Sea or preventing the United States from conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs).

The United States undoubtedly remains the world’s largest military power – spending more on the military than the seven next powers combined – but it has to strike a delicate balance in facing China’s irredentist agenda in the South China Sea while avoiding a strategic overstretch of its resources.

The position adopted by the Trump administration will prove crucial for the further evolution of the situation. At first sight, there seems to be no obvious reason for abandoning Obama’s pivot policy of combining a robust military presence with multilateral diplomacy. If Trump does, however, opt for a policy of isolationism and disengagement from the South China Sea, this may enable China to further consolidate its position in the region and prove detrimental to US local allies and ASEAN. The ultimate outcome of such a repositioning remains nevertheless uncertain as a more contented China could be willing to make concessions, for instance on its nine-dash line, and US allies could also prove more open to compromise. The worst-case scenario would seemingly consist in Trump adopting an ambitious rollback or containment policy which would significantly heighten the risk of confrontation between the two superpowers.

Speaking the Same Language

The biggest challenge in the South China Sea remains one of understanding and common language as China and the United States are at risk of engaging in an escalating rhetoric that could prove fatal in a context of increased domestic pressure Clearly, conflicts in the South China Sea are not just about realpolitik but also about history, identity and ideological projection. and expectations. Clearly, conflicts in the South China Sea are not just about realpolitik but also about history, identity and ideological projection.

Western powers manifest a general difficulty in reading China’s intentions and core interests behind sweeping concepts such as President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream, as well as in fathoming the intricacies of the Chinese worldview and politics. To a certain degree, this seems to be a rhetorical game as part of Western incomprehension is feigned, just as part of Chinese ambiguity is intentional, as illustrated by the ingenuous indefiniteness maintained by the Chinese leadership about the exact meaning of its nine-dash line. US leadership, for its part, has thus far clung to the more readily transparent language of multilateral governance and respect of international law in the region, which raises its own credibility issues given US past and present policies in Asia and elsewhere.

Functioning communication channels and a sufficient degree of mutual understanding – which is not concomitant with sharing the same values – would do much to overcome historical scars and identity anxieties and avoid the escalation of conflict in the region.


The South China Sea remains the most contested maritime territory worldwide, and legal wrangling over sovereignty issues is likely to continue. Given China’s dismissal of the Arbitral Tribunal’s recent ruling and the fact that no riparian state seems to have a solutions will have to be sought in the political rather than the legal arena. real interest in fixing the maritime boundaries according to the UN Convention on the Lawof the Sea once and for all, solutions will have to be soughtin the political rather than the legal arena.

A possible scenario would be that the United States and China find a modus vivendi satisfying the core strategic interests of both countries, e.g. recognition of some of China’s sovereignty claims and naval build-up in exchange for US continued presence and freedom of navigation. This could be complemented by a formally binding code of conduct (COC) involving all parties and proving more constraining than the current Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

An alternative could consist in a policy of small steps witnessing the proliferation of bilateral agreements between China and ASEAN members, as has been the case with the Tonkin Gulf agreements between China and Vietnam. This would of course depend on how much rapprochement in the region the United States would allow between its allies and China.

In any case, the need for interim conflict management measures and operating communication (back)channels between the actors in the region remains crucial to prevent minor skirmishes from escalating. In view of Trump’s confrontational rhetoric towards China thus far, it can, however, be doubted whether the cognitive dissonance between the two superpowers will reduce in the near future.

By Dominic Eggel,
Research Office,
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: China unveils its new submarine fleet.

South China Sea: Elementary Data


East Asia


3.5 million km²

Riparian countries

Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam.


Petroleum, natural gas and fisheries products.

Major route of world maritime trade

Each year, USD 5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; US trade accounts for USD 1.2 trillion of this total.

Main islands

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged.

Source: by Galvin and whybe.ch.

The Disputed Islands

The Spratly Islands

The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of 14 islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs, sometimes grouped in submerged old atolls. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Vietnam. The islands have no indigenous inhabitants, but offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. Some of the islands have civilian settlements, but of the approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs and shoals that are occupied, all contain structures that are occupied by military forces from Malaysia, Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Additionally, Brunei has claimed an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Paracel Islands

The Paracel Islands are a group of islands, reefs, banks and other maritime features. They are controlled (and occupied) by China, and also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The archipelago is surrounded by productive fishing grounds and a seabed with potential, but as yet unexplored, oil and gas reserves.

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal is a disputed territory claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, access to the shoal has been restricted by China. Scarborough Shoal forms a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks with a perimeter of 46 km. It covers an area, including an inner lagoon, of 150 km2. The shoal’s highest point, South Rock, measures 1.8 m above water during high tide.

The Pratas Islands

The Pratas Islands are an atoll in the north of the South China Sea consisting of three islets about 340 km southeast of Hong Kong. Excluding their associated EEZ and territorial waters, the islets comprise about 240 ha, including 64 ha of lagoon area. China claims the islands, but Taiwan controls them and has declared them a national park. The main island of the group, Pratas Island, is the largest of the South China Sea islands.

Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank is an elongated sunken atoll of underwater reefs and shoals. It lies east of the Paracel Islands, southwest of the Pratas Islands and north of the Spratly Islands. Its length exceeds 130 km southwest-northeast, with a maximal width of more than 70 km. With an ocean area of 6,448 km2 within the outer rim of the reef, although completely submerged without any emergent cays or islets, it is one of the largest atolls of the world. Macclesfield Bank is claimed, in whole or in part, by China and Taiwan.

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