Why South China Sea tension may rise again, say analysts

The South China Sea situation may have calmed down since last year's turbulence, but tension may rise again, both Chinese and American experts have warned, citing "uncertain" and "negative" factors.

Several "uncertain factors" may raise the temperature in the disputed waterway again because last July's arbitral tribunal ruling against China's claims has changed the rules of the game, according to Dr Wu Shicun of the Haikou-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Speaking at the World Peace Forum at Tsinghua University yesterday, he said that this could lead to claimant states focusing on actual control and strengthening their presence in the area. The United States, Japan and other forces may make use of the ruling against China's claims, he added.

China's claims to almost all of the South China Sea overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malay- sia, Brunei and Taiwan. The arbitration case was brought by Manila.

The South China Sea, said Dr Wu, is of great importance to the US in maintaining its leadership position in the Western Pacific.

Therefore, "the Chinese-US geopolitical competition in the South China Sea will continue".

"Some form of military confrontation will become a trait of the South China Sea geopolitical competition and maritime rivalry," he said.

As for Japan, it has become a new variable in the South China Sea as it seeks to expand its influence and military presence in the area in order to "put into practice its aim to be a true big power".

Mr Paul Haenle, the director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre in Beijing, agreed that tension in the South China Sea could rise again because of some "negative" factors.

However, he said the US or any country that uses international waters to move commerce cannot be considered an outsider in the South China Sea issue where freedom of navigation was very important.

"We should expect to see continued freedom of navigation exercises by the US... in the coming months," he said, if the US is disillusioned by China's unwillingness to affirm commitments made last year to not further militarise islands in the South China Sea or to not alter the status quo in areas such as Scarborough Shoal.

Dr Nguyen Vu Tung of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, speaking at the same session, suggested ways to avoid escalating tension, including the avoidance of incidents through seriously applying the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. He also suggested crisis management and confidence- building measures.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline Why South China Sea tension may rise again, say analysts. Subscribe