Chinese Realpolitik in the South China Sea

The Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea have been the site for the continuous display of international realpolitik. This has played out through the competing claims of six States, including those of China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Taiwan, for administrative control over the region. Although the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea expressed a desire to “enhance favorable conditions for a peaceful and durable solution of differences and disputes” and to enhance the “exercise of self restraint”, there has been scant progress towards its fulfillment. Multilateral negotiations have failed for two primary reasons – first, the imbalance of power structures within the ASEAN; and second, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s continuous calls for the “elimination of interference” by the United States. Furthermore, the recent withdrawal of a giant Chinese oil rig from Vietnamese waters has caused significant debate due to China’s submission to the Secretary General of the United Nations. This has been construed by the international community as nothing short of a strategic feint by the Chinese.

On the 15th of July this year, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation announced that the billion dollar oil rig Haiyang Shiyou had completed its drilling project near the Paracel islands. The Haiyang Shiyou was to withdraw from the area and relocate near Hainan Island (bordering China’s southernmost province). The installation of the giant forty storied oil rig on the 2nd of May this year raised a visible geopolitical storm in the area, over oil and gas reserves. The controversy began when the rig was accused of violating the territorial waters of Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The premature withdrawal of the rig also triggered what seems to be the lowest point in diplomatic relations between China and Vietnam after 1979—evidenced by over a hundred injuries and four deaths during anti China riots and a Chinese counter attack through the arrest of six Vietnamese fishermen. The latest foreign policy meeting between the disputing parties in June was a miserable failure, with Vietnam vowing to “defend their land and sea” and China refusing to “swallow the bitter fruits that undermined its sovereignty”, according to the Vietnamese. The pressing question, that automatically expands the scope of debate, is now one of Chinese realpolitik at the backdrop of its practices in the South China Sea.

On one hand, a significant section of the international community has welcomed China’s withdrawal from the area as fostering respect for both statutory as well as general international law norms. However, the question that remains unanswered is that of China’s dual motives of exploring possible territory for hydrocarbon projects, as well as attacking the credibility of opposing parties to China’s claims of respecting international law. Fortunately for China, the typhoons that came its way while the mission subsisted diverted the international community’s attention. A precedent of China’s usual modus operandi would clearly suggest that the present move demonstrates a tactical manoeuvre to establish a dominant presence in the South China Sea.

Through various statements, Chinese officials have articulated a claim to ninety percent of the disputed areas in the South China Sea. However if such a claim is interrogated to test its credibility, it becomes evident that although an explicit legal code provides a clear basis for the determination of territorial waters, China continues to assert “historical rights” citing “effective administrative exercise” and “presence” in the disputed territory. Due to such aggressive methods of disagreement and continued attempts at infringing the sovereignty of the disputed areas and other disputing parties, China has created an absolute political impasse.

It thus becomes fairly clear, that what many believe appears to be a Chinese attempt to revive bilateral ties, is one that is not cut and dry. Rather, it is one which is deeply embedded within international realpolitik, hinting unfavorably towards an immediate diplomatic revival. As has been pointed out earlier, it is quite likely that the primary motive of the Chinese has been to explore possible areas for hydrocarbon projects in the future. Considering that a preliminary examination of the same was being conducted when the withdrawal took place, this would tilt the scales in favour of it being a calculated move in order to paint China as being respectful of international norms.

About Author

Devarshi Mukhopadhyay

Devarshi Mukhopadhyay is a student at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research in Hyderabad, India. He is a guest writer for the HIR Blog.