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The Australian National University

The South China Sea and Australia’s Regional Security Environment

Download the entire Occasional Paper (PDF 754KB)

Read the launch speech by Professor The Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of ANU

Lead investigators: Dr Leszek Buszynski and Dr Christopher Roberts

The South China Sea has been an ongoing maritime dispute for over six decades and in recent years has become one of East Asia’s most dangerous flashpoints. China’s claim has been expressed in the nine dash-line which appears in official documents but whether it refers to islands or sea area remains ambiguous. The Vietnamese claim overlaps with the Chinese and is similarly unclear. The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim contiguous parts of the area and Indonesia has a conflicting claim to the EEZ around its Natuna islands. The project will seek to understand the perspectives and interests informing each of the claimant states’ positions. It will also examine the conflict potential of the current dispute and will also explore avenues for a resolution of the issue based on ASEAN’s proposal for a Code of Conduct [COC], dispute resolution under UNCLOS and notions of conflict prevention in general.

In this project, Dr Leszek Buszynski and Dr Christopher Roberts explore these questions for the purpose of producing the following three outputs:

  • A Canberra based conference involving key experts in the field from Australia and Asia;
  • An accessible multi-author NSC occasional paper for distribution within the Australian and regional national security communities;
  • A high quality edited book based on expanded versions of the edited papers in the NSC occasional paper.

South China Sea Conference

As a component of the research project, Dr Buszynski and Dr Roberts held a conference followed by an author’s workshop on the South China Sea. The conference involved presentations from leading experts in Australia and Asia including Dr Jian Zhang, Associate Professor Ralf Emmers, Professor Renato Cruz De Castro, Professor Clive Schofield, and Professor Donald Rothwell. A broad range of stakeholders attend the event including government officials, academics and foreign embassy staff. The conference was held in the Crawford Building at the Australian National University on 28 March 2013.

Conference booklet: South China Sea Conference Booklet (1.3MB)

NSC Occasional Paper: The South China Sea and Australia’s Regional Security Environment

1. Introduction(Leszek Buszynski and Christopher Roberts)

2. The Evolution of the Dispute (Leszek Buszynski)

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This paper examines the factors that inform the maritime dispute and why it has become so prominent. In this context, it will examine the scramble for hydrocarbons, access to fishing stocks, and China’s need for naval access to the open waters. What was once an outlying maritime area of little interest to anyone has become a focal point for possible conflict. The paper will also examine the evolution of the dispute from the early 20th century. It will note the importance of the San Francisco Conference of 1951; Philippine, South Vietnamese, and Taiwanese moves in the area; and China’s resort to force in 1974 and 1988. It will analyse the reasons as to why the dispute has intensified in recent years and what is at stake for regional security.

3. Increasingly Contested Waters? Conflicting Maritime Claims in the South China Sea (Clive Schofield)

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Maps of the South China Sea tend to show a bewilderingly complex array of lines indicating competing claims to both territory (islands) and maritime space. Indeed, the South China Sea is arguably the world’s most contested maritime space. It is host to a complex coastal geography, numerous sovereignty disputes over islands featuring multiple claimants, excessive and controversial claims to baselines, conflicting and overlapping claims to maritime jurisdiction and, most recently, contested submissions regarding extended continental shelf rights. There are also indications that maritime jurisdictional claims are being more vigorously enforced. The paper outlines and analyses these conflicting and overlapping jurisdiction claims from geopolitical, spatial and legal perspectives. Key maritime jurisdictional claims are unpacked and the spatial picture of the South China Sea built up piece-by-piece. An overview and assessment of how the geographical and geopolitical factors that inform and underlie the South China Sea disputes is offered and contemporary developments are highlighted and analysed.

4. Law of the Sea dimensions to South China Sea Maritime Claims (Donald Rothwell)

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The South China Sea encompasses a number of land and maritime disputes and while ultimately the ‘land dominates the sea’ with respect to how many of these issues will be settled, there remain a number of key principles under the international law of the sea that will be pivotal in determining the South China Sea maritime disputes. Given that the majority of the maritime claims within the region are or will be generated from islands and other maritime features such as rocks, reefs, atolls, and cays, a threshold issue will be the capacity of these features to generate maritime zones consistent with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In this regard, a particular legal question will arise under the Convention as to whether these maritime features are Article 121 (1) islands, or Article 121 (3) rocks. Even when those matters are determined, there will remain issues as to how these features will be considered for the purposes of delimiting EEZ or continental shelf maritime boundaries. This paper will assess these legal questions by considering the state practice and interpretation of the Convention, and assess the 2012 International Court of Justice decision in Nicaragua/Colombia, which has particular relevance to some of these legal issues.

5. China’s Position and Claim (Jian Zhang)

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The renewed tension between China and some other claimant states over the disputed territories in the South China Sea in recent years has triggered widespread concerns about growing Chinese assertiveness. In contrast to its relatively conciliatory approach to the South China Dispute in the early to mid-2000s, Beijing has appeared to become increasingly uncompromising when handling the dispute. Moreover, its constant refusal to clarify its extensive but ambiguous territorial claim based on the ‘nine dash line’ constitutes a major obstacle to the solution of the dispute. This paper seeks to analyse the causes and nature of China’s recent actions in the South China Sea as well as the reasons behind Beijing’s reluctance to clarify its claims. In particular, it will focus on the domestic debates within China about the country’s strategy in the South China Sea dispute and speculate about the future direction of Beijing’s policy.

6. Vietnam’s Position and Claim (Thanh Hai Do)

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The presentation examines the evolution of Vietnam’s claimed maritime boundaries in the South China Sea since 1991. To this end, it will look into Vietnam’s position on the major incidents that have taken place there, and its negotiations with neighbours. It will pay particular attention to the legal documents that Vietnam refers to, its submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in 2009, its new maritime law in June 2012, and will trace changes in its approach to the issue. It is argued that Vietnam has increasingly clarified its claims regarding the maritime zones it claims, and its maritime rights in the light of UNCLOS. It notes that it is part of Hanoi’s strategy to minimize its potential disadvantages in view of China’s increasing assertiveness in the area.

7. The Philippine’s Position and Claim (Renato Cruz De Castro)

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The Philippines claims an area and the islands within the South China Sea, which it calls Kalayaan. Its position is that this claim is separate from the South China Sea area that is in dispute with China. The presentation examines the Philippine claim to the area and the clashes with China over Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The presentation will examine this standoff between the Philippines and China as a case of conflict escalation. It observes that the two-month standoff is the culmination of China’s coercive moves against the Philippines as it consolidates it maritime claim in the South China Sea. These moves involved the build-up of the Chinese naval capability and Chinese diplomatic/military efforts to undermine the other claimant states, and its current focus on the Philippines given its military weakness.

8. The US Interest (Ralf Emmers)

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What is the US role in the South China Sea? The official position is that the US supports no claims in the area but is concerned about the maintenance of freedom of navigation. Strategic reasons for US involvement in the issue and the concern with Chinese claims, which would give the Chinese navy control over the sea-lanes through the area and a strategic advantage in terms of strategic rivalry with the US in relation to Taiwan and other issues. A Chinese dominated South China Sea could also split ASEAN and would weaken indigenous Asian regionalism that could act to maintain equilibrium in the Western Pacific. The US became more openly involved as Chinese pressure on the ASEAN claimants increased over the past three years and is now accused by the Chinese of strengthening their resistance and increasing tensions. The strategic significance of the South China Sea was recognised by the Obama Administration and this partly informs a subsequent effort by the United States to rebalance the US military presence in the Asia Pacific region.

9. The Role of ASEAN (Gary Collinson and Chris Roberts)

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This paper examines the following questions. How have recent tensions and actions (vis-à-vis the South China Sea) affected ASEAN solidarity? How might the dispute affect ASEAN in the future and what are the prospects for ASEAN to respond in a meaningful manner? Can ASEAN respond collectively or will it be necessary for a core group of ASEAN states (i.e. the littoral claimants) to form a subgroup within ASEAN that will avoid the complications of consensus created by the increasingly closer relations between some member ASEAN countries and Beijing?

10. Implications for Australia (Michael Wesley)

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As tensions increase in the South China Sea Australia will be faced with a dilemma of the kind it has not faced before. How can Australia manage relations with its alliance partner and major trader? Should the issue deteriorate, and some analysts predict that the situation will get worse before it improves, how would Australia react? Australia has accepted the rotational basing of US marines in Darwin as part of the Obama Administrations’ response to China but how far would it go in supporting the US in the event of a conflict? The options for Australia should be examined and analysed but it may be that Australia should devise its own response to the South China Sea issue by working with the ASEAN claimants and if possible ASEAN as an organisation.

11. Avenues for a Resolution (Leszek Buszynski and Chris Roberts)

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In what ways can the South China Sea issue be resolved? Measures to stabilise the area to prevent conflict should be distinguished from ways to resolve the issue, yet stabilization is required before a resolution can be considered. Stabilization measures would include dispute resolution according to UNCLOS, the ASEAN proposal for a Code of Conduct in the area that is being discussed, proposals for conflict prevention such as avoiding incidents at sea, and demarcating fishing and oil exploration activities on a temporary basis pending the resolution of the claims to sovereignty. A resolution of the maritime claims would require more extensive measures including a cooperative maritime regime that would demand the setting aside of current claims and the promotion of joint development. Ultimately, the complicated situation calls for a UN conference on the South China Sea, which would deal with the legal issues of a semi-enclosed area that were not covered by UNCLOS.

12. Conclusion

The conclusion will summarise the issues raised in the above chapters and will then offer recommendations as to how the issue might be managed in the interim pending a resolution of the claims.


Updated:  10 April 2015/ Responsible Officer:  Head of College, National Security College/ Page Contact:  Web administrator, National Security College