Other Extraregional Powers Reinforce Intervention in the South China Sea Affairs

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2019-04-08 | Tang Pei


The South China Sea has been gaining more prominence in terms of the geo-strategic position as the strategic competition between China and the United States intensifies. Based on their own strategic interests and in respond to the U.S. strategic adjustment as well, extra regional powers such as Japan, Australia, Britain, France and so on, are inclined to adopt the policy of intervention towards the South China Sea affairs. Consequently, they strive to take entries into the region more strongly, promote regional cooperation by various means, and continue to strengthen regional presence in a way to make response to the U.S., facilitate alliance coordination and further seize opportunities to gain advantages. 


Strategic concerns over the South China Sea enhanced with relatively stronger aspiration to intervene.

Under the background that the U.S. is pushing forward the implementation of its Indo-Pacific Strategy, those extra regional powers as Japan, New Zealand, Canada and so on, have reinforced their identification as stakeholders in the South China Sea, further raised national strategic concerns and carried out relevant national policies. With the strategic guideline of a “new oceanic state” , Japan has made elaborate plans for the strategy of stretching southwards and been determined to put them into practice. With the formal approval of the Third Basic Plan on Ocean Policy on May 15, 2018, Japan has proposed for the first time the concept of Comprehensive Maritime Security, and adjusted its maritime policy with its focus on both securing the safety and security on the oceans and maintaining maritime rights and interests.  According to the Plan, Japan claims to:


  • Promote cooperation that contributes to capacity-building of the ASEAN states as a whole; 
  • Strive to further strengthen Japan-U.S. coordination in broad areas of maritime security aspects and to strengthen coordination with friendly powers;
  • Coordinate with the related countries involved by using international frameworks such as the G7, the East Asia Summit (EAS), the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM) Plus to strengthen diplomatic initiatives aimed at the rule of law;
  • Ensure the safety of navigation in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore by means of upgrading the electronic nautical charts and conducting the joint hydrographic survey in cooperation with the littoral states funded by the Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund (JAIF);
  • Train and support Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) operators at the ASEAN Regional Training Center, strengthen cooperation with the nations participating in the East Asia Summit meetings to guarantee the freedom and safety of navigation. 


The action directions mentioned above show the basic considerations of Japan’s South China Sea policy in a great extent as follows:


  • secure national interests in Japan’s territorial waters and beyond 
  • secure stable use of Japan’s important SLOC
  • strengthen international maritime order
  • promote international cooperation on the ocean


There are good reasons to expect that Japan will upgrade the overall scale of exports of equipment and technology to ASEAN countries, forge ahead the establishment of strategic dialogue and other cooperation mechanisms with them in a gradual and practical way, and based on the U.S.-Japan+, move further to promote maritime security cooperation with Philippines, Vietnam, India and other countries. In November 2018, the Japanese government renamed its Indo-Pacific Strategy as Indo-Pacific Vision in an attempt to blur its strategic ambition and win the support of the ASEAN countries. Besides, an agreement has been reached between Japan and the U.S. on the infrastructure construction cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. 


In July 2018, the New Zealand government issued Strategic Defense Policy Statement 2018 , in which the China Threat was played up and concerns were expressed clearly over China’s acts in the South China Sea. In the Statement, it attributes the emergence of “contested rules and places” to China’s “pursuit of spheres of influence”, and takes this as one of the main reasons leading to the “the international order under pressure”. It is stated that “as China has integrated into the international order, it has not consistently adopted the governance and values championed by the order’s traditional leaders” . These statements follow the same track with the U.S.’s deeming of China as a revisionist in the international community. In addition, the Canadian Senate voted to adopt a motion on the South China Sea issue on April 24, 2018, criticizing China’s “escalating and hostile behavior” in the South China Sea.  Thus, moves have been taken by some relevant extra regional countries to adjust their policies and standings towards the South China Sea issue, which also provides indications for their inclination to get more involved into the regional affairs.


Regional ties consolidated, grabs of intervention in the South China Sea strengthened. 

Japan, Australia, and other extra regional powers make efforts to strengthen regional ties and promote regional cooperation while priorities have been given to efficient control of hand grabs and sustained multi-means connections with the region with the aim to enhance their regional influence and competitiveness in a positive way. In the field of politics, Japan, Australia and other countries recognize the centrality of ASEAN and its role played in regional affairs, focus on the Code of Conduct (COC), and seek for opportunities to interfere with the COC consultation process, which mainly includes: 


  • advocating that China’s strategic postpone of the COC timetable makes it impossible to achieve, openly questioning and provoking China’s sincerity to promote the COC consultations, and creating disharmony between China and ASEAN; 
  • making positive responses to regional countries such as Vietnam that intend to draw support from the extra regional powers, gain more leverage in the COC consultation and get more diplomatic chips on hand 
  • expressing their common standings on COC through platforms of bilateral dialogues and meetings with regional countries; 
  • emphasizing concerns of the third parties, putting forward that the COC should not harm the rights and interests of non-signatories, and advocating that the COC should be kept open and transparent . 


During the 8th ministerial meeting of the United States, Japan and Australia held in Singapore in August 2018 under the framework of tripartite strategic dialogue mechanism, a joint statement was issued calling for “the COC to be: consistent with existing international law, as reflected in UNCLOS; to not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of all states under international law” . Thus, it is noticeable that the United States, Japan and Australia take the unanimous stand on the COC issue to ensure “interests of third parties”, and make attempts to scramble for the dominance of regional rule-making through interfering in the construction of regional order in the South China Sea region. 


From the perspective of legal principle, Japan, Australia and some other extra regional countries highlighted the importance of abiding by the international law as an essential access to the South China Sea issue while making full use of multilateral platforms such as G7, Shangri-La Dialogue and so on to express their concerns on the issue. And much of the emphasis is on: 


  • emphasizing that the award of the South China Sea arbitration case will provide a useful basis for the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea in the future; 
  • declaring that international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, should be fully complied with; 
  • respecting all diplomatic and legal procedures, resolving disputes in the South China Sea peacefully and refraining from the use or threat of force;
  • and that all countries, including China, have the responsibility to abide by international law, respect freedom of navigation and overflight and other legitimate uses of the sea. 


In the terms of economy, these extra regional powers take active measures to boost cooperation with ASEAN countries in trade, investment, enterprise development, transportation, energy and other fields, and on this basis, they put forth efforts to promote the shape-taking of the Comprehensive Progress Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP) in order to retrieve the dilemma since the U.S. made the announcement of withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) in 2017. CPTPP has been ratified by Mexico, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia, and has entered into force among them On 30 December 2018.  Thus, CPTPP as the first large-scale free trade agreement in the Asia-Pacific region, will further intensify the trend of regionalization and grouping of international economy and trade and will provide an important platform and path for developed countries to seize control over setting new rules of international trade . In addition, Japan, India and other countries take a positive attitude in pushing forward cooperation in the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources with some certain regional countries. In a joint statement recently delivered by India and Vietnam, it is claimed that Vietnam “welcomed Indian businesses to expand their oil and gas exploration and exploitation activities on land and in the continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Viet Nam” .


Maritime security highlighted and regional cooperation boosted in this domain. 

Japan, Australia, India and other extra regional countries strive to promote common understanding with countries in the South China Sea region in the domain of maritime security while securing their own maritime security interests remains their basic standing, and boost defense cooperation with regional countries in respects of maritime awareness, natural disaster management, anti-terrorism and combating violent extremism, network security and so on. Accordingly, relatively most remarkable and steady strides are made forward by Japan as it: 


  • reaches an agreement with Vietnam on strengthening maritime security cooperation, and signs the Joint Vision Statement on Japan-Vietnam Defense Cooperation towards the next decade , which provides guidelines for the future defense cooperation between the two sides;
  • signs an executive agreement with the Philippine Navy to advance bilateral cooperation;
  • based on the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology, promotes cooperation in defense equipment and technology with some regional countries, as evidenced by the grant of 5 MSDF TC-90 training aircrafts to the Philippine Navy  and the signing of the Agreement Concerning the Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology with Malaysia in April 2018. 


India gives priority to defense cooperation with ASEAN. With a common vision on further deepening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, India and Vietnam make efforts to implement the Joint Vision Statement on Viet Nam-India Defense Cooperation for the period of 2015-2020 in a practical way as defense and security cooperation remains on the top of the list with focus on:


  • strengthening defense ties between their armed forces, enhancing cooperation in areas of cyber security; 
  • expediting the implementation of the US$100 million Line of Credit for building of high-speed patrol boats for the Viet Nam Border Guards and urging for early signing of a framework agreement on the US$ 500 million Line of Credit for defense industry;
  • strengthening cooperation in maritime domain, including anti-piracy, security of sea lanes, exchange of white shipping information;
  • agreeing to hold the first Maritime Security Dialogue on issues related to maritime domain and further encouraged port calls of each other’s naval and coast guard ships. 


Meanwhile, India puts forth efforts in boosting defense partnership with Indonesia. The two sides signed a defense cooperation agreement in May 2018 as part of the bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership, aiming to expand collaboration in joint defense production, technology transfers and technical assistance, and sourcing of defense equipment.  Other than areas of “great potential”, they identify cooperation in mil-to-mil dialogues, joint exercises, maritime security, counter-terrorism, cybercrime and arms smuggling as those of great necessity. Progress has been made in promoting maritime security cooperation as India and Indonesia hold the first Exercise Samudra Shakti in November 2018.  India also values ties with Singapore and takes steps to improve bilateral defense partnership as both sides share the common vision of building the strong and long-term defense relationship. Under the frameworks of relative navy and air force agreements between India and Singapore, bilateral cooperation is enhanced in the domain of maritime security with emphasis on naval logistics support and joint air training. In addition, Australia plays an active part in the regional engagement. Operation Augury-Philippines is carried out with the Philippines, with personnel deploying in the Philippines and anti-terrorism tactics and methods shared.  The 6th annual Australia-Indonesia High Level Committee meeting was held in July 2018, in which both sides agreed to “an extensive program of Navy, Army, Air Force and joint exercises and engagement activities for 2019-2020”, and “emphasized the importance of increasing the complexity of bilateral military exercises, enhancing information sharing, and growing practical maritime security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.”  


Power presence expanded and operational coordination and coordination strengthened. 

These countries outside the region, such as Japan, Australia and the United Kingdom, routinely deploy their warships to the South China Sea with intensive mission arrangements, various modes of operation and extending scope of activities. It is noted that Australian Navy’s HMA Ships Anzac, Toowoomba and Success were dispatched to the South China Sea in April 2018 for a three-month deployment, during which they engaged in a series of activities with Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and other regional countries, such as port visits, personnel exchanges, logistic resupplies, passage exercise and so on. Australia also took the chance to participate Exercise Bersama Shield, the joint maritime exercise under the framework of Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA) with other member nations, namely Malaysia, Singapore, Britain and New Zealand, with the aim to enhance interoperability and strengthen the professional relationships of FPDA nations through the conduct of maritime, land and air operations in a multi-threat environment. 


In August 2018, the British Navy’s HMS Albion L14 entered the territorial waters of China’s Xisha islands in a way to demonstrate its position of safeguarding freedom of navigation, which was the first of its kind carried out by the American allies in the South China Sea. In September 2018, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s submarine Kuroshio and the destroyers Kaga, Inazuma, and Suzutsuki jointly conducted anti-submarine exercises in the South China Sea. After that, the submarine Kuroshio visited Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam for the first time and conducted passage training with Vietnam, and the destroyer Kaga and other vessels paid port visits to the Philippines, and Indonesia.   In addition, other extra regional powers such as India, France, New Zealand, Canada and so on also dispatched naval vessels to deploy in the South China Sea with an apparent but common attempt to demonstrate presence and expand their strategic space. 


For countries as Japan, Australia, Britain and so on, importance has been attached to further enhancing strategic consensus, promoting policy docking in the Indo-Pacific region and strengthening coordination and cooperation on both political positions and operations at sea when the South China Sea issue is concerned. Toward this end, they mainly rely on the bilateral and multilateral mechanisms under the framework of the U.S. alliance, such as 2+2 meetings of the Japan-U.S., U.S.-Australia, Japan-Australia, Japan-Britain and tripartite dialogue mechanisms of the U.S.-Japan-Australia, the U.S.-Japan-Britain. It is during the Japan-U.S. defense ministerial meetings that Japan and U.S. discussed about “defense cooperation among Japan, the U.S., and Southeast Asian nations to address conditions in the South China Sea” . The MSDF vessels participated in the joint maritime exercise with the U.S., Australia and the Philippines during the deployment in the South China Sea. In January 2019, the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell and Royal Navy Type 23 frigate GMS Argyll conducted operations in the South China Sea. As the first of its kind, the drill included communication exercises, division tactics and so on with the aim “to address common maritime security priorities”.  


To sum up, those extra regional countries other than the U.S. have reinforced their involvement in the South China Sea region and expanded their regional presence through political, economic, legal and security means, which stand out as a prominent feature of the current situation in the region. The geographic position of the South China Sea is the junction part between the Indian and Pacific Ocean, and in the context of the growing competition among big powers, its geostrategic value in politics, economy and security will be further highlighted. In the future, for countries outside of the region such as Japan, Australia, Britain, France, India and so on, safeguarding their national geostrategic interests will remain the basis of policy making. In response to the implementation of the U.S. India-Pacific strategy and also in demand for increasing diplomatic chips against China, multi-means of intervention will remain the basic orientation of their South China Sea policies, with emphasis on raising concerns about or choosing to interfere in the COC consultation, upgrading deployments and operations in the South China Sea, as well as boosting regional defense and economic cooperation with ASEAN member states. 


On one hand, Japan, Australia, India, Britain and other countries out of the region tend to intervene in the South China Sea affairs with stronger aspirations, and continue to take unilateral operations in the region. With the warming of Sino-Japanese relations, the confrontation between the two sides at sea will be eased in a certain extent. Japan, however, will not choose to give up its southward policy as it will keep on reinforcing its presence in the South China Sea. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announced in February 2019 that the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth be deployed to the South China Sea after he told the media in an interview that Britain planned to build a new military base in the region with Singapore and Brunei as options of site selection more than one month ago. There is no denying the fact that the British government is divided on the deployment of aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Behind these moves, however, there are realistic considerations as Britain needs to become closer to the U.S. for its support when faced with the Brexit pressure.


On the other hand, the effects of multi-party coordination and co-operation within the U.S. alliance system may be more significant. Apart from India and Russia, most of the countries outside the region, yet keen on interfering regional affairs, are allies of the U.S., such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and so on. For these countries, the alliance with the U.S. is taken as an important part of their strategic interests. Under the framework of the U.S. alliance system, they will further strengthen coordination between or among the allies not only about their positions on the South China Sea issue, but also concerning move-taking in various fields, such as diplomacy, jurisprudence, public opinion and operation at sea, so as to reinforce the collective effect in order to maximize their respective interests in the South China Sea. Take the recent Britain-U.S. joint drill in the South China Sea as an example. There are strong signs that the joint operation between the U.S. and its ally in the South China Sea has been strengthened. It is most likely that elements of future joint operations of this kind, such as participants, tactical coordination and so on, will be expanded and upgraded under appropriate conditions. 


Thus, the extra regional powers continue to reinforce their involvement in South China Sea by means of diplomacy, economy, security and so on, and as a result, regional contest and competition centered around the regional rule setting, control at the sea and so on will become more complex and increasingly critical. As some of these countries enhance the power presence and military activities in the South China Sea in a way to cooperate with the U.S., security confrontation and geopolitical tensions are bound to be intensified in the region.

Tang Pei

TANG Pei, born in Wen Shan of Yunnan Province in March 1979. Doing research works in the field of maritime security with research interest mainly in maritime security policies and power development of regional countries, regional security situation and so on.