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The South China Sea in 2017 – Peace or Chinese Hegemony?

Scott Reid

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that territorial expansion by Chinese military forces into the South China Sea had breached the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Now, tensions continue to escalate between the China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, and more recently, the United States. The body of water (also known as the West Philippines Sea) is not only rumoured to house rich oil and gas deposits, the U.S Energy Information Administration (2013) has estimated that one third of the world’s oil supply transported by Ocean Vessel passes directly through the South China Sea. Amidst a changing political landscape, will 2017 see any further developments?

The 2016 ruling by The Hague thrust the territorial conflict into the international spotlight, galvanising world leaders to throw their support behind either the Philippines or China. Vocal supporters of the Philippines have included Vietnam, Japan, UK, India, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia and the United States of America. China however purported to have more than 70 countries supporting their disengagement with the ruling. The problem of enforcement was always going to be a major consequence emerging from the International Court action, so was the moral victory worth it?


Rodrigo Duterte, 72, has played a vital role in changing the dynamics of the territorial conflict. The charismatic leader has eroded U.S.–Filipino relations to the worst state they have ever been, telling then-President Obama, “you can go to hell.” The ex-Mayor of Davao, who initiated the Philippine drug war, confessed to having killed at least 3 people, and idolises “Putinism”, is by no means a conventional bureaucrat. His handling of the dispute with the Chinese has been central to diplomatic relations surrounding the issue, as well as the negotiated outcome. There have been questions as to why he has deliberately avoided involving ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) in ongoing settlements. His wider pledge to pursue an “independent foreign policy” has been questioned by many.

Duterte’s tough-man pragmatic approach with the U.S. is better measured by actions than words; the manufactured controversies are nothing more than political rhetoric devised to bolster his approval rating. The reality is that the Philippines is firmly embedded within the Chinese sphere of influence, Duterte having received money from an anonymous Chinese donor throughout his Presidential campaign. Now President, he is riding a wave of anti-American rhetoric to secure an agreeable outcome with the Chinese. On December 5th, 2016, the Philippine foreign minister stated that any U.S intervention in the dispute would be in its own interests—the Philippines would begin 2017 with a clean slate. February brought more promising initiatives with the Philippine Defence Secretary categorically stating, “I’m not going to wage war over those small islands”. More recently in April of this year, Duterte pulled out of raising the Philippine flag over disputed atolls, saying, “Because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag”.

Despite his expressions, Duterte is still bound to U.S engagement through the Mutual Defense Treaty. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the United States has $5.3 trillion in shipping passing through the archipelago annually with major conglomerates wielding considerable influence over the Trump administration. Subsequently, relations have been cordial with the newly appointed American government, with Duterte personally phoning the President to congratulate him. For there to be any legitimate involvement from the U.S., the Philippines needs to consolidate diplomatic relations. The U.S. is not a member of UNCLOS and therefore cannot play a leading role in implementing its legitimacy without some form of legitimising reason.

To make matters worse, the Chinese state-run ‘Global Times’ has stated that “unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent Chinese access to the islands will be foolish”. Some have argued the potential for China to impose a blockade or an embargo throughout the entire area, however this would effectively become a self-imposed blockade. Instead, subtly, it has now become a matter of policy to deliberately direct Chinese fishing vessels into the area to conduct their practices. This form of ‘asymmetrical warfare’ is typical of the modern battlefield. Another example of the changing dimensions of international conflict is Vietnam’s passing of a “law of the sea” claiming sovereignty over the Parcel and Spratly islands and therefore placing the atolls under their legal jurisdiction. In response, the Chinese implemented a wide-reaching prefecture in Sansha City, also claiming to assume judicial administrative control of the same islands. Economic, cyber, psychological and even legal warfare are fast becoming the norms of 21st century conflict.

The potential for U.S involvement has become increasingly questionable. According to a 2017 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 44% of Americans have favourable views towards the Chinese. A similar poll found that 45% of Chinese believed the U.S. to be a major threat. An international dispute would be effectively American-led. Although the U.S. currently has a military budget of USD$587 billion, the Trump administration has proposed a $52 billion increase for 2018. In comparison to the U.S. military, the Chinese military is considerably outdated in terms of technological firepower.; however, their naval fleet is around 700-strong while the U.S only has roughly 430 ships. China also exerts considerable political and economic influence over the area, which is still within its sphere of influence. Purportedly, advanced missile systems have already been assembled on the contestant islands. On the global chess board of geopolitical movement, the South China Sea conflict will be kept simmering by the U.S. as a card to play on the world stage, with a military engagement between the U.S. and China as the endgame.


In a recent turn of events, the U.S. has become embroiled in a diplomatic feud with North Korea over its testing of ballistic missiles and looming nuclear weapons program. In turn, the Trump administration has sought multi-lateral support from China to resolve the spat. Once more, actions speak louder than words: so far, we have seen the deployment of the USS Carl Vinson supercarrier to the Korean peninsula and joint military drills with Japan and South Korea. “The number one threat in the region continues to be North Korea, due to its reckless, irresponsible, and destabilizing program of missile tests and pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability,” a U.S. Navy spokesman said in response to the deployment. Both Kim Jung-un and Donald Trump are leaders depending upon the credibility of their reputations; eventually they will need to prove their words are more than just empty rhetoric, regardless of the consequences.

2017 has seen the South China Sea dispute take a backseat to ongoing political tensions between the U.S. and North Korea. However, the territorial land grab that made its way to The Hague in 2016 will continue to boil below the surface and stoke resentment between a rising China and its neighbouring countries. Personalities like Duterte, Trump and Kim Jong-un risk seeing escalating the inflammatory rhetoric; this coupled with their respective foreign policy objectives will no doubt lead to continued tensions doomed to create friction, like tectonic shifts. Against the clock, a peaceful resolution must be found.



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