Standing up to Xi Jinping in the South China Sea

By Jacob Koelsch
Undergraduate Research Assistant
Baker Institute China Studies Program


Despite David’s epic victory over Goliath, history reveals that giant ambitions are most reliably thwarted by giant coalitions of the bold.  Napoleon’s Grande Armée fell not to the enormous army of the Russian czar, but first to a coalition of Russia, Austria and Prussia at Leipzig, and then finally to a second coalition of Britain, the Netherlands and Prussia, at Waterloo. China’s Core Leader Xi Jinping would do well to ponder the historical fate of great powers going it alone. China’s neighbors, near and far, would also do well to study the history containing Bonaparte-sized ambitions. As China increases its military and paramilitary activity  in the South China Sea (SCS), smaller claimants to the waterway whose territorial waters are routinely navigated by Chinese vessels must now face a historic decision: to continue their previous “quiet diplomacy” behind closed doors, which plays to the East Asian giant’s advantage, or to challenge China’s aggression publicly and on an elevated stage, with allies. Indonesia’s recent letter to the U.N. rejecting China’s Nine-Dash Line map, and dismissing a Chinese offer to negotiate claims to the waterway, could be the beginning of a bold new trend among previously timid countries in the region.

The South China Sea is a strategic waterway and the site of approximately one-third of  global shipping flows, along with significant energy resources. With the Strait of Malacca connecting the Pacific and Indian Oceans, stability in the region is paramount to securing trade routes between the emerging economies of South and East Asia, energy markets in the Middle East, and resource-rich Africa.

China’s aggressive stance on the South China Sea is nothing new given the first iteration of the U-shaped line came in 1946 when cartographers sought to define exactly which islands China claimed in the region. Historically, Vietnam stands out by far as the most vocal country in disputes against China’s claims in the region. However, in rare flashes of assertiveness, some regional claimants have over the years challenged China’s regional expansion at international forums. Notably, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled  in favor of the Philippines’ 2016 challenge to China’s “historic rights” in the region, although China continues to disregard the ruling as it continues its unconcerned regional expansion.

Diplomatically, the Chinese foreign ministry and associated entities continue their tireless soft power campaign, working to strengthen their hardline stance on issues relating to claims in the SCS. For instance, as Vietnam and the Philippines separately planned to extract oil and gas from areas within the same “historic” claims rejected by The Hague, Beijing “resorted to blunt private warnings not reported in official Chinese media” to halt the operation, according to a report on China-Southeast Asia relations by reputable American scholars of China. As recently as April 2019, the Peking University Institute of Ocean Research launched the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative designed to monitor areas of the SCS central to Chinese strategic interests in the region. Representatives of the initiative and government partners held multiple exchanges in 2019 with counterparts from Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Excluding Vietnam, individual responses to Chinese aggression by claimants to the South China Sea typically occur behind closed doors given China’s “divide and rule” tactics, and the degree of response to Chinese incursions often depends on the strength of each country’s political and economic ties with China. For instance, while Vietnam tends to push back publicly and in full force, such as in response to the Talisman incident in 2017, Malaysia and Brunei tend to pursue “quiet diplomacy,” favoring closed-door negotiations and forgiving compromise. As China increases its diplomatic and military presence in the region, the approach of individual regional claimants in the region must align as they challenge China’s quest for regional dominance.

In the realm of cooperatives governing the South China Sea, very few initiatives have the stabilizing potential of the SCS Code of Conduct (COC). The agreement is currently in its early stages of negotiation between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization intended to facilitate cooperation on issues ranging from track-2 diplomatic exchanges to energy security initiatives, and the PRC; both are seeking to construct a framework for “correct” action in the midst of continuing territorial disputes. China and other regional actors have come to a notable impasse in the negotiations of this important document, with only a single draft having been put forth since the framework of the COC was adopted in August 2017.

As smaller SCS claimant states such as Indonesia begin to amplify their concerns on an elevated international stage, joining Vietnam as vocal challengers to China’s military expansion in the South China Sea, the feasibility of cooperatives such as the SCS Code of Conduct becomes increasingly questionable. Throughout the negotiations of the COC and future cooperatives, Southeast Asian nations and especially small claimant states must publicly support one another in efforts to challenge China in the region, countering the PRC’s United Front with a strong and cohesive coalition of their own. These nations must ignore the short-term risks of publicly rejecting China’s incursions in favor of the long-term prospects of creating a framework for stable and equitable governance over the SCS.