Changing dynamics in the SCS and increasing Chinese aggression

In a statement released by the US Department of State on September 27 highlighted that China has not kept its promise of non-militarisation of islands under its control in the South China Sea as well as its military outposts located in the region. Instead China has deployed a number of surfaces to air cruise missiles, installed radar domes, and stationed anti-ship missiles in those islands. It has developed signal intelligence capabilities, built new hangers for fighter jets, and extended existing runways which can support its maritime surveillance aircraft operations. The US Department of State has specified that the China has no maritime legal claims in South China Sea, and should desist from using military outposts to threaten neighbours. In fact, lately the role of the maritime militia and the accompanying Coast Guard ships has drawn the attention of the US navy. The US navy has made strong objections to this strategy, and the assertive activities which deter the littoral countries in conducting legitimate fishing activities in the high seas, and the development of the hydrocarbon resources in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the countries.

In the past it has been seen that China has tried to forcefully impose the three-month fishing ban in South China Sea, and has deprived the littoral countries in conducting their hydrographic surveys and other related scientific projects. In July and August there has been dangerous manoeuvres conducted between the US and Chinese navies. This was supported with surveillance sorties which have been conducted by both the major powers. In the statement, the US has affirmed that it will standby its Southeast Asian allies and partners. This statement made by the US Department of State comes after US has imposed restrictions on certain PRC state-owned enterprises and has enlisted 24 such enterprises under the sanctions list. Under this list it has been made very clear that any US enterprise or associated private enterprises would not assume by default that the permission has been granted for interacting with any of these Chinese entities for business or investment purposes.

One of the entities which have been severely affected because of its inclusion in the sanctions list is the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) which has been involved in developing more than 3200 acres of reclaimed land in the disputed features in Spratly islands. The press release which was made on the eve of imposition of sanctions has clarified that the dredging activity which has been taken by the Chinese companies have caused environmental degradation, and has done irreversible damage to the marine life in the region. It categorically stated that that US would make sure that Chinese military activities and its expansionist agenda is kept under control. In fact, this draws upon the consistent US stance with regard to the Chinese reclaimed islands since 2012, and was repeated again in July 2020 when it has stated very clearly that China cannot claim maritime zones and offshore resources across the region as these are illegitimate, and have no standing under the UNCLOS.

The US has strongly advocated that it stands for a “Free and Open Indo Pacific”, and would make sure that the rules-based international order is applicable in South China Sea. US has time and again stated that China has no legal claims to unilaterally impose its economic zones and its claims on the adjoining waters in the Spratly Islands.

Referring to the July 2016 PCA decision with regard to South China Sea, the US has specifically stated that China cannot claim Exclusive Economic Zone under the Scarborough reef and the Spratly Islands. It has also made strong objections to the harassment of the fishermen from Philippines, and categorically criticised Chinese activities which are detrimental to the exploitation of sea bed sources. It strongly advocated that China has no claims to the Mischief Reef and even rejected PRC claims for 12 nautical mile territorial seas for these reclaimed islands. Interestingly, US also referred to Chinese maritime sorties in the Vanguard Bank located just short of Vietnam’s EEZ, and took strong note of the fact that China has been undertaking certain activities which amount to harassment of other states fishing vessels and hydrocarbon exploration ships.

Subsequently, there has been strong rejoinder and support with regard to Malaysia’s submission on the expanse of continental shelf in the South China Sea which has been ably supported by other ASEAN members including Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, and Indonesia. Brunei which has been slightly selective in airing its response to the developments in the South China Sea, has also made tacit reference to the increasing militarisation of the disputed seas. Indonesia, which has not been the direct claimant to this SCS islands dispute, has also mentioned that Chinese Coast Guard ships which accompany Chinese fishermen militia have been harassing Indonesian fishermen in the waters of the Natuna islands. Multiple times it has been seen that Indonesian navy had to intervene and drive away the Chinese coast guard ships to protect the fishing zone which lies within its maritime sovereign borders.

Since August 2020 it has been witnessed that China has been firing missiles into the disputed waterways and has tried to intimidate military exercises conducted by other nations including the US. Further, with the excessive fishing done by the Chinese trawlers it has been observed that the fishing stocks in the South China Sea have depleted significantly, raising tensions among the littoral countries. China has been providing nearly USD $7.2 billion of subsidies to its fishermen so that they can sustain longer in the South China Sea and catch higher yield per boat. One of the strategies that the Chinese fishermen adopt Is that they a change the flags of their boats so as to fish even within the legitimate EEZ of other countries.

Despite knowing very well that increased military actions in South China Sea might lead to military flare up between US and China, China has been conducting military drills in the Bohai and Yellow seas, particularly aimed at mobilising its North Sea fleet alongside with South Sea fleet. PLN has been simulating exercises so as to mobilise large forces in case of intervention in Taiwan or threatening US aircraft carrier groups in South China Sea. China has been mobilising its fighter jets and conducting surveillance sorties between Philippines and Taiwan to know the response time of the Taiwanese Air Force, and thwart any possible intervention by the US navy or air force at time of crisis.

The exercises across East China Sea and South China Sea have disturbed regional peace and security in the two regions. On August 28, China even used its carrier killer missiles in South China Sea as an act of warning to the United States Navy. US surveillance plane has allegedly violated the Chinese airspace and it was cited as a reason for conducting these threatening missile launches.

Early this month Vietnam has made categorically statement that the military drills conducted by China will severely impede the discussions and negotiations related to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and also continued military drills would hamper the development of a maritime code in the SCS. Vietnam being the Chairperson of the ASEAN has been taking due cognizance of the developments, and has repeatedly warned that these kinds of escalation would make things difficult in the region. As a result of these recent developments, the US military has deployed 120 aircraft and more than 12,000 troops for enforcing its presence in the region. These military activities are likely to impede any kind of negotiation process or de-escalation of tensions which might impact the post-Covid economic recovery. 

Prof. Pankaj Jha
Prof. Pankaj Jha
Pankaj Jha is faculty with Jindal School of International Affairs, O P Jindal Global University, Sonepat. He can be reached at pankajstrategic[at]