TOKYO—The issue involving the South China Sea is of vital significance for East Asia. It is a priority not only in relations among Japan, the United States and China, but also in relations between China and Asean. It was thought that the US freedom of navigation operations and the ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the suit brought by the Philippines would open a path toward a resolution to the dispute, but China’s stance has basically been to ignore both developments.
With its claims, China is forming a sphere of influence by building naval bases in the shape of a large triangle, connecting the Spratlys, the Paracels and Scarborough Shoal to the west of the Philippines. If successful, China will basically seize control of the seas and the skies, facilitating easy access for its nuclear-powered submarines from the base in Hainan to the Pacific Ocean via the Luzon Strait. Since China has built bases on the Spratlys and Paracels, the next target is Scarborough Shoal. These moves have drawn widespread attention.
From China’s perspective, the narrative is completely different: The islands in the South China Sea were originally Chinese territory that have been unlawfully occupied by the coastal nations. Japan and the United States are meddling in an issue that should be resolved through bilateral negotiations between China and the other claimants. It is the United States and Japan that are complicating the issue.
Although we now live in the age of the internet, all countries create such “narratives,” and it seems difficult to achieve a shared understanding.
Immediately after the G20 Summit in Hangzhou last month, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a leading Washington-based think tank, announced the results of a study that mapped a total of 45 incidents—including the ramming of ships and small-scale skirmishes—that have occurred in the South China Sea since 2010. The results indicate that China’s Coast Guard and its predecessor were involved in 68 percent of the incidents. If one adds the Chinese Navy, China has been involved in 78 percent of the incidents.
It would appear that China is causing the problems. But from its perspective, it is under siege and only defending itself from the pressures exerted by various countries.
Another story making the rounds in China is that Japan is isolated on the issue involving the South China Sea. It is exactly the opposite in Japan, where many people are under the impression that China is isolated in its view of the PCA ruling. Yet the Chinese perception is not necessarily strange. Despite the tensions between America and China in the South China Sea, America has engineered a cooperative relationship with China on climate change. Southeast Asian nations focus on economic relations with China and, from the Chinese perspective, the G20 Summit concluded without any problems. Seen from China, it may seem as if Japan alone is endlessly talking about basic principles such as the rule of law and freedom of navigation.
Nonetheless, the real-world stories are more important than such “narratives” or finger-pointing. Around the time of the G20 Summit, it was reported that China was dispatching survey ships to the vicinity of Scarborough Shoal. At the Asean Summit in Vientiane, which was held immediately after the G20 Summit, the Philippine defense secretary expressed grave concerns about China’s moves in the Scarborough area.
China’s intention vis-à-vis the South China Sea in the aftermath of the G20 Summit is important. It is undeniable that tensions in the region may rise again, triggered by China. For the time being, the international community and the countries involved are cooperating based on the PCA ruling, entering into provisional agreements, and creating frameworks to prevent the increase of unexpected incidents involving economic activities such as fishing. It seems reasonable to take a long-term view to finding a resolution to the sovereignty issue.
Shin Kawashima is professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo.