China claimed to be king of the widely disputed sea off its south coast before a world arbitration court ruled a year ago that it lacked legal grounds for the massive maritime claim. A year after that ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Beijing has become only more dominant over the South China Sea despite competing claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. That’s because China rejected the ruling but to make sure no one squawked, it stepped up economic cooperation with some of the other countries.
China has the world’s third largest military and second biggest GDP, making its maritime control hard to challenge especially if you’re a smaller Southeast Asian state. But not everyone is just standing by. Here are four countries that are able and likely to throw water on China’s increasing control over the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that’s rich in fisheries, fuel reserves and shipping lanes:
India has no claim in the South China Sea but hopes to stop China from consolidating its own. The well-armed Western ally that disputes two border regions with China established an “Act East” policy in 2014 to improve ties with fast growing Southeast Asian nations. Supposedly it would act economically, but maybe there’s more.
In May the country was exploring placement of a tsunami warning system in the South China Sea for regional use even though Beijing is working on one, as well. In 2014 the overseas subsidiary of India’s state-run firm ONGC reached a deal with Vietnam to explore under a tract of sea that Beijing covets. China is not opposing India’s tsunami alert system idea but is less thrilled about the oil deals.
Acting as China’s balance-of-power counterweight in Asia, Japan gave Vietnam six ships in 2014 and last year agreed to lease five military aircraft to the Philippines. Those are just just two examples of how it has supplied nations with South China Sea claims that overlap those of Beijing.
Some see Japan as an Asian proxy for Western influence against Chinese expansion. From May 1 its Izumo helicopter carrier began escorting a U.S. supply ship. It was probably headed to the South China Sea through August for port calls and drills with India and the United States in the Bay of Bengal.
China has a separate maritime dispute with Japan over Tokyo-controlled islets in the East China Sea. It’s very wary of Japanese military expansion in the future. No wonder a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson told Japan in March via the official Xinhua News Agency not to cause trouble in the region.
3. United States
U.S. President Donald Trump looked the other way at China’s maritime expansion through April as he hoped his Chinese counterpart would help rein in North Korea’s ballistic missile development. But as that cooperation shows signs of thinning, since late May the U.S. Navy has passed two vessels through the South China Sea to refute Beijing’s idea that the whole sea is theirs. China objected to both passages.
The United States doesn’t claim any of the sea, but Beijing frets because of the well-armed U.S. government’s ease in forming military alliances with Asian countries that do. The prime example is joint U.S. naval patrols with the Philippines since 2014.
This is the only country with a competing South China Sea claim that is likely to go against China’s maritime expansion, which includes land reclamation at some of the sea’s bigger features and infrastructure for military use. Like other states in Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese value their trade relationship with China, which totaled $95.8 billion in 2015.
But they fundamentally dislike China and aren’t afraid to risk its wrath despite a smaller military. Consider centuries of land border disputes, a deadly 1974 battle over the sea’s Paracel Islands (China controls them now) and a boat-ramming incident three years ago over a Chinese oil rig. Vietnam can count on India and Japan for support if needed. So it’s OK reclaiming its own islets and drilling for oil in waters that may fall inside China’s “nine-dash line” that it uses to demarcate its maritime claim. China will bellyache — a military official cut short a visit to Hanoi last month — but Vietnam has enough resolve and backing to resist.
By Ralph Jennings