A University Grants Commission Approved Journal
(under UGC-CARE, Arts & Humanities Citation Index)
ISSN 2582-2241



Multiple Authors. The South China Sea Disputes: Flashpoints, Turning Points and Trajectories. Edited by Yang Razali Kassim. (Singapore: World Scientific, 2017). Pages 509. US$ 148.




THIS BOOK IS A COMPENDIUM OF ESSAYS WRITTEN BY VARIOUS authors on the South China Sea disputes, contributed to the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and arranged in a near chronological sequence. The subject is arguably the most important issue in international relations in the contemporary history of Southeast Asia and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Rich in its content, it is a must read for the strategic community for its ASEAN hue and varied perceptions. The book would also be useful for students of geopolitics and international maritime law.

The reader needs to bear with some amount of overlap which is made unavoidable in this book’s disparate format. Conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea between China and the ASEAN countries is the theme of the book as the title suggests.



China claims 80 per cent of the South China Sea as its legitimate maritime domain, whereas Malaysia claims three islands in the Spratlys and a significant part of the South China Sea. The Philippines claim eight islands in the Spratlys and its legitimate Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea, while both Vietnam and Taiwan claim considerable portions of the South China Sea, as well as the Spratly and Paracel group of islands.

ASEAN was formed on 8 August 1967 with Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand as founding members, and joined by Brunei in 1984. Subsequently, metamorphosis took place when Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) got amalgamated in 1990. China made inroads and fractured the ASEAN cohesiveness by exploiting the economic depravity of Laos and Myanmar. In addition, fora such as ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, Asean Regional Forum (ARF), and East Asia Summit (EAS) produced additional vectors pulling ASEAN in different directions, and adding complexity to ASEAN unity.

Failing to present a united front to China, the principal opposition—bilateral action/negotiations by individual claimant states—undermined the strength and efficacy of ASEAN. This was further accentuated by intra-ASEAN squabbles, boundary clashes between Cambodia and Thailand, and territorial disputes which were eventually resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) such as the Sipadan Ligitan island issue between Malaysia and Indonesia in 2002, and the Pedro Branca issue between Singapore and Malaysia in 2008.

The Declaration of the Code of Conduct mooted in the South China Sea could not progress into a more concrete and binding ‘Code of Conduct.’ China’s procrastination was evident and it eventually shocked the world in 2009 by officially propounding the ‘nine dash line’ through Notes Verbales to the United Nations. The move was seen as an infringement upon international law. True to China’s policy of strategic ambiguity, it depicted China’s sovereignty over the islands (insular features) and adjacent waters of South China Sea. This boundary practically encompassed 80 per cent of East and South China Sea with total disregard to the sovereign claims of the other littorals. China put up frivolous justification with historical claims: in 1935, China’s map verification committee declared sovereignty over 132 islands reefs and shoals of Nanshan (Spratly) and Zhongsha Islands (Maclesfield Bank). By drawing a parallel to the concept of extension of EEZ and continental shelf as applicable to islands, some of China’s claims pivot only around rocks which cannot even sustain human habitation and economic life.

The militarisation of the Spratly islands by land reclamation by China and Vietnam has been significant. China has landfilled about 3,200 acres to augment tiny islets. It has positioned surface to air missiles in Woody Islands, the largest in the Paracel group. On  the  Fiery Cross Reef (in the Spratly Islands) China has constructed, and operationalised an  airstrip of 3,000 meters which makes it capable of operating and re-fuelling  even large fighters and  bombers, increasing their operating radii. Reports in the public domain indicate that airstrips of similar size are also under construction at Subi Reef and Mischief Reef. In 2015, Chinese companies built floating islands with a displacement of 400,000 to 1.5 million tons which are capable of carrying a number of maritime battalions and a squadron of fighter aircraft across the seas transiting at speeds up to nine knots. Vietnam, on the other hand, has also engaged in land filling more than two dozen islets in the South China Spratly Island. Malaysia (Swallow Reef - 1,368 metres), Taiwan (ItuAba - 1,195 metres), Philippines (Thitu Island - 1,000 metres) and Vietnam (Spratly Island - 550 metres) have airstrips too in the South China Sea. Their usefulness, however, is restricted due to their respective lengths.

Now the question is: Why is China doing this? Is China paranoid of the sole superpower’s likely intervention in the South China Sea disputes? Or, is it just a façade as Beijing chooses to intimidate and bully the weaker littorals to ensure her own energy security, lured by the abundant prospect of hydrocarbons in the South China Sea which is estimated at more than seven times the reserves of Kuwait? China was oil sufficient till 1996 and a net exporter of crude oil till 1995. With its phenomenal growth, China’s oil consumption has risen to approximately 575 million metric tons a year, of which 80 per cent has to pass through the South China Sea. Needless to say that sustaining and safeguarding energy requirement is China’s paramount concern. Every year trade worth US$ 5 trillion passes through the South China Sea. This includes approximately US$ 1.2 trillion traded goods of the United States. This also has an inference with President Hu Jintao’s Malacca dilemma which predicates China’s vulnerability in securing the majority of its energy supplies and trade which passes through the Malacca Straits. Therefore, the best option for China is to garner as much of its energy requirement from its own backyard, namely the South China Sea.

As a response to China’s assertiveness and provocations from North Korea, the US ‘Pivot to Asia’ was unveiled by President Barack Obama in the Australian parliament on 17 November 2011, which  was  later termed ‘Rebalancing’ in a document issued by the State Department on 5 January 2012. China took a unilateral decision and declared an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea on 23 November 2013, stating that it was an equalising move as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan had declared ADIZs earlier. Interestingly, China’s ADIZ intentionally covered the airspace over the disputed Senkaku Islands.

To disregard China’s claims, the United States reiterated its position that it would overfly the ADIZ and also send warships to the disputed waters when it chooses. U.S. military aircraft entered the ADIZ without notification two days after declaration whilst a U.S. guided missile destroyer sailed through the disputed territorial waters off Subi Reef in October 2015. A comparative analysis of military strengths of China, and the lone superpower, the United States, weighs overwhelmingly in favour of the latter. Actions in East and South China Sea have, to a large extent, alienated China from most of the East Asian littorals. Economics has softened the response of some of the ASEAN littorals. Though trade and commerce has remained largely unaffected, polarisation against China is undeniable.  However, Malaysia which holds China as its largest trading partner leans more on China and is critical of Vietnam.

China has engaged in skirmishes at sea with Vietnam in 1974, and in 1988 when Vietnam suffered more casualties. Even in 2014, ships of either side rammed into each other in the Gulf of Tonkin, in connection with Chinese oil exploration. These clashes have been the genesis of the new-found bonhomie between Vietnam and the United States which would have remained unconceivable otherwise.

Scarborough Shoal is located between Macclesfield and Luzon, 137 nautical miles from Luzon Island of the Philippines and approximately 4,472 nautical miles away from Mainland China, and was owned by the Philippines till the beginning of 2012. This led to a standoff as China resorted to force and cyber-attacks against the Philippines and seized the shoal in April 2012. Since bilateral talks failed, the Philippines eventually filed a motion for arbitration at a United Nations tribunal to challenge most of China’s claims. The Philippines claimed that it exercised effective occupation and jurisdiction over the shoal since its independence in 1946. The reef was used as an impact range by the Philippine and the U.S. forces positioned at Subic Bay since 1992. The Philippines also produced a map published in Manila by the Jesuit friar Pedro Murillo Velarde in 1734 which shows Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), off the coast of Zambales province, as a part of the Philippines. The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal gave its ruling on 12 July 2016 in favour of the Philippines, and, as was expected, China rejected the verdict with frivolous accusations that the bench was bought over by the Philippines and that the ruling was a farce. However, Filipino fishermen are being allowed to fish in Scarborough shoal from August 2016.

An understanding of the South China Sea disputes would not be complete without dealing with the ramifications of Sino-Japanese relations. Japan is embroiled with China over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Therefore, it is no surprise that Japan renders tacit support and aids capacity-building of ASEAN littorals, particularly the Philippines. Japan’s energy security and commerce is affected by the overall geopolitical environment of the South China Sea. Sino-Japanese wars have created a peculiarly strained relationship between the two. The economies of the two countries are intrinsically tied despite their volatile relationship. The value of trade between the two countries is close to US$ 370 billion, the third largest after the European Union and the United States. China’s muscle flexing and provocative stance have provided Japan with the legitimacy of shifting to a more assertive defence policy and of shedding the postwar U.S. defence umbrella. Japan, under its current dynamic leader, has taken the decision to export arms. It would be wise to remember that Japan fielded six aircraft carriers in the attack on Pearl Harbor and four heavy aircraft carriers in the battle of Midway, without judging its outcome. Its hi-tech industrial base and sophistication in avionics, and the capability of building warships and submarines, could in the near term create a force which by itself could pose a challenge to China and its hegemony. In the larger context, the inclusion of Japan in the largest ever Indo-U.S. Naval exercise ‘Malabar’ in the Indian Ocean in July 2017 may be seen as a pointer to the future to tackle China.

China’s stated axiom of ‘peaceful rise’ has not been vindicated by its actions in the South or East China Sea. However, in order to see through the Chinese prism, one needs to look into China’s history and take cognisance of the scars of humiliation it suffered from the mid-19th century in the First Opium war against the British (1839-42), the Second Opium War with the combined British and French forces (1856-60), and the First Sino Japanese War of 1894 when China lost control over Korea. The Second Sino-Japanese War started in 1937 and lasted for eight years. After initial setbacks the Chinese salvaged their pride after the Japanese surrender following U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

China’s active defence strategy has a maritime component which is relevant to the South China Sea as outlined by Liu Huaqing, the Vice Chairman of the Military Commision, in 1982. This strategy delineated three stages. The objective of the first stage would be to establish control of waters within the first island chain that leads Okinawa Prefecture, Taiwan, and the Philippines from 2000 to 2010. The objective of the second stage from 2010 to 2020 would be to establish control of waters within the second island chain that links the Ogasawara island chain, Guam and Indonesia. And the goal of the final stage would be to put an end to U.S. military dominance in the Pacific and Indian Oceans by 2040.

If such a strategy is followed, it would only lead to confrontation and not yield any solution to the present imbroglio. Not adhering to the verdict of the PCA is unbecoming of any nation, more so for a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Only astute statesmanship and fairness displayed by the leadership of all claimant nations, particularly China, would lead to a solution, or at least ease the impasse. China must desist from its penchant for unilateral alteration of status quo.  Until China instills confidence in all stakeholders of the South and East China Sea, it is likely to encounter resistance and be viewed with suspicion for all its actions in the South China Sea or other parts of the globe, including its One Belt One Road initiative. The global commons must remain unaltered. If not, the South China Sea would become a crucible of confrontation which would be detrimental not only to China and the ASEAN littorals but also for the rest of the world at large.        

Vice-Admiral Pradip K. Chatterjee, PVSM, AVSM, NM (Retd.) is former Commander-in-Chief of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Earlier, he served as Deputy Chief of Naval Staff of the Indian Navy. He holds an M.Phil in Strategic and Defence Studies from the University of Chennai. This review was written on 12 July 2017, marking the first anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), which went in favour of the Philippines.