May 16, 2016: The United Nations appointed a five-member tribunal to the case anyway, but China has steadfastly defended its right to the more expansive maritime claims laid out by the nine-dash line, which outlines the country's vast territorial claim over much of the South China Sea. (The provisions laid out in UNCLOS would require shrinking those claims, since the exclusive economic zones of other South China Sea states jut into the territory bounded by the nine-dash line.) Because the U.N. court will probably also reclassify different types of landmasses in a way that will be unfavorable to Beijing, UNCLOS is of dubious value to China. Consequently, Beijing has long fought to arbitrate territorial disputes outside the agreement's binding mechanism, preferring to hold direct talks with other claimants instead. Now, backed into a corner by the Philippines, China must decide whether to renounce UNCLOS entirely or rely on its own interpretation of international law, regardless of whether it flies in the face of the court's ruling.
March 26, 2016: China's activities in the eastern part of the South China Sea have garnered a lot of attention. Around the Paracel and Spratly islands, the United States, Japan and regional partners (primarily Vietnam and the Philippines) are expanding security cooperation to counter China's growing naval presence. But in the sea's south, China's relationships with Indonesia and Malaysia have largely been unexplored. Though not as dramatic as maneuvers in the east, developments in the south offer a more holistic picture of the maritime trade, energy flows and resource use —especially fishing — that define disputes in the South China Sea.
Oct. 26, 2015: Beijing does fear one thing in the South China Sea: the involvement of Japan. Tokyo, long a passive power in the Pacific Rim, is now embarking on the long process of reasserting itself. If Japan decides to become more involved in the South China Sea, China's strategy will become significantly more complicated. Recent signs indicate this may be starting. Tokyo recently carried out search and rescue drills with the Philippines, as well as other exercises with Southeast Asian states, flying an EP3 out of Palawan over parts of the South China Sea. Japan is also negotiating a visiting forces agreement with Manila to allow Japanese ships and planes to refuel and resupply in the Philippines. It is also offering to fund and supply ships and aircraft to the Philippine and Vietnamese coast guards and navies. And Tokyo and the United States have agreed in principle to carry out joint patrols in the South China Sea, perhaps as early as next year.
Oct. 2, 2015: The United States sees Taiwan, along with nations such as Japan, as allies to counterbalance a rising China. In the past altering island claims would have been anathema for a Taiwanese Kuomintang-controlled government that has steadfastly upheld the "One China Principle," which maintains that mainland China and Taiwan are part of a single entity with competing governments. But Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a strong chance of winning the January 2016 presidential election. With few ties to the mainland and little interest in maintaining the One China narrative, a DPP administration could conform with U.S. wishes and, in doing so, alter the South China Sea strategy of both Taipei and Beijing.
Sept. 29, 2015: Washington's strategic imperatives in the Pacific will not change, but its methods will. The United States will transition gradually in the coming years toward indirect and less costly ways of enforcing its writ. This will mean devolving responsibility to regional partners such as the Philippines, Australia, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.The United States' shift is already beginning to push its allies in East Asia to become much more proactive in defending their security interests. Japan is at the forefront of this movement. In late 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched an initiative to revive Japan's regional economic, diplomatic and military standing. Since that time, Japan has made strides in regional diplomacy and military expansion and normalization. Still, to be successful, Japan will need to dramatically expand its efforts.
July 26, 2015: Although the competition between South Korea and Japan is in this case rather tame, Asia is littered with disputed islands, reefs, submerged rocks and shoals. These tensions are much more significant. Chinese public animosity over Japan's claims on the Senkaku Islands (China calls them Diaoyu) triggered riots, looting and caused some Japanese businesses to leave China. Vietnam and China have already had several military engagements over the Paracel Islands. Chinese construction projects on several reefs and islets in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea upset the Philippines and prompted objections from Washington. And the list continues: Most Southeast Asian nations claim overlapping portions of the contiguous seas. International law offers only the most dubious help in resolving these disputes. Geographic designations that are meant to help distinguish between the different types of landmasses are ambiguous. This only compounds the dizzying array of competing claims.
July 20, 2015: China needs to defend itself from hostile submarines. Its goals of gaining regional power while protecting the mainland require a maritime strategy in the Western Pacific, especially in the areas Chinese military planners call the two island chains. The first island chain encircles the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea. The second stretches from Japan to Indonesia. Beijing thus needs to develop robust anti-submarine warfare capabilities to keep submarines out of the first island chain, where many mainland and naval targets would be in range of attack.
The People's Liberation Army Navy, however, does not have the means to counter U.S. submarines — the critical threat — or even those of nearby powers, including Japan and South Korea. Consequently, Beijing is devoting considerable resources to enhance the navy's anti-submarine warfare capabilities and correct one of its greatest military weaknesses.
June 19, 2015: The final terms of the potential visiting forces agreement are not yet clear. However, the Philippines' efforts to augment a similar agreement with the United States give clues about its intent with the Japanese pact, if not necessarily the specifics. In April 2014, as China was pressuring the Philippines at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippines signed an agreement with Washington allowing the United States to station forces rotationally in Philippine bases and stockpile supplies at these facilities. The Philippines-Japan visiting forces agreement, driven by these same tensions, could include similar terms.
March 27, 2015: Beijing has been shaping its Pacific posture — particularly in the East and South China seas — to raise the cost of U.S. intervention. Raising the cost of intervention would shape the political — and thus security and economic — balance in the region in favor of China. If China can make the cost of intervention higher than the reward, it does not need to engage in military activity to gain regional political concessions. And the nuclear component remains a very real element of this defense posture.
Nov. 10, 2014: China's recent foray into the East and South China seas is not its first, but it is perhaps its most substantial. For a number of reasons, Beijing is no longer comfortable or confident enough to allow the status quo in the region to remain unchanged. The natural expansion of China's interests, and its attempts to expand and ensure its sphere of influence, inevitably lead to responses both from its neighbors and from the more geographically (but not strategically) distant United States. Beijing's intent is not to trigger conflict, but rather to slowly change the political reality of the region by expanding its maritime buffer and securing its maritime trade routes. But few of these changes will go unchallenged, adding a layer of uncertainty to the future of East Asia.
May 8, 2014: The deployment of the CNOOC 981 oil rig is Beijing's first step toward unilateral deep-sea oil exploration in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. Until recently, little formal deep-sea exploration had occurred in the South China Sea, partly because of long-standing territorial tensions and unclear commercial viability. For a long time, no claimant country, including China, had the indigenous equipment and technology to carry out these kinds of operations. Before 2013, China's energy exploration was primarily confined to shallow waters adjacent to its southeastern coast. But deep-sea capability has become necessary as China searches for new energy sources to bolster its energy security, a search that has taken place alongside its desire to reshape the political and security environment in the South China Sea. Beijing sees deep-sea exploration as an important tool to substantiate China's physical presence (and thus, authority) in the disputed waters.
Dec. 17, 2013: The United States and China, via the media, continue to trade accusations over a reported near-collision between naval vessels in the South China Sea. The incident has raised the usual concerns about rising tensions amid China's growing maritime activity and declarations, as well as concerns that an accident at sea or in the air could trigger a more serious international incident. But China is also constrained in its actions, and as Beijing seeks to reshape the balance of power in its region, it faces a robust naval environment that leaves it very little flexibility in its efforts to dominate the seas that surround it in the future without exposing its current weakness.
June 3, 2013: Beijing's plan to gradually enhance its physical presence along the maritime boundary with the Philippines largely was driven by the Philippines' insufficient naval and coast guard capability and the lack of attention or assistance from outside powers, particularly the United States, the Philippines' security ally. Meanwhile, Beijing will find it logistically difficult, particularly during a crisis, to maintain a presence at all the islands, which are disconnected from each other. However, its actions around these islands have constituted a small-scale encroachment in its disputes with the Philippines and allowed China to test boundaries and highlight the United States' lack of action on behalf of its treaty allies in the region despite Washington's intentions to bulk up its presence in Asia. Ultimately, Beijing's intention may not be to monopolize the South China Sea, but to create a situation in which the United States will be forced to acknowledge China's interests and presence in the maritime sphere.
March 18, 2013: Chinese strategy calls for control over the South China Sea, putting Beijing in direct conflict with Hanoi's interests there. China, Vietnam and several other Southeast Asian countries disagree over ownership of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. In 1974 and 1988, China engaged in armed naval conflict with Vietnam, in both cases killing members of the Vietnamese military. Complicating Vietnam's efforts, Hanoi is not competing with just China for resources and influence, but with every country in the region, including the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia.
Vietnam thus needs a strong maritime force to leverage its strategic location in the South China Sea and to protect its economic interests there. The competition is stiff for resources such as oil and fish in the crowded waters east of Vietnam. A larger navy helps Hanoi ensure it is not muscled out of the region. Vietnam's long coastline also makes it vulnerable to attack from the sea, requiring at least a defense force.
March 6, 2013: As competition increases over sea lanes, natural resources and disputed territories in the South and East China seas, China is using its multiple coast guard organizations to secure its influence. China's civilian maritime agencies have a great degree of overlap. They compete among themselves and sometimes require assistance from other branches. Still, they provide an avenue for China to establish its presence and project force at less risk than relying on heavily armed naval vessels. China's strategy may force some of the smaller countries in the region to begin collaborating to counter the much more numerous Chinese maritime forces.