China’s Change in Behaviour with the UNCLOS Regarding the South China Sea Dispute

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18th May 2020 International Relations Reference this

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Question: What can explain China’s change in behaviour with the UNCLOS regarding the South China Sea dispute with the Philippines between 1996 and 2016?

Thesis: Everyone is hedging, not taking sides but trying to maximise their national interests

A ‘rules-based order’ has populated the discourse of geopolitics to date regarding maritime trade and commerce in the Indo-Pacific, however, China’s seemingly unsubstantiated and assertive reach into maritime spaceaccording to international conventions and normshas prompted controversy in international politics. Through examination of the conflict with the Philippines and China in the South China Sea, this paper will provide three causes for a shift in compliancy with the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS): the influence of external threats on China’s behaviour, China’s rise and the fundamental basis and interests of their foreign policies. In doing this, it will employ the logic of neorealism and constructivism  to articulate that (everyone is hedging, not taking sides but trying to maximise their national interests given the UNDERSTANDING of power in the international system and the dynamics and the balance of power in the ‘Indo-Pacific’).  It will be divided into five sections and will begin by contextualising the South China Sea dispute and the conflict with the Philippines. This will be followed by a systemic, regional and domestic level of analysis respectively that runs parallel to the causes identified and will conclude with an extrapolation of the implications and possible resolutions presented by constructivism. Whilst it will not address [Limitation of study], a study of this is imperative given the interplay of sovereignty, regionalism and globalisation and in consideration of future policy making effecting great powers.

Part 1: Historical and legal context of the South China Sea dispute: Tensions between China and the Philippines


Given the abundance of maritime resources, its promising potential for hydrocarbons, and the strategically significant shipping lanes, the South China Sea and its primarily uninhabited islands have been a hotspot since the 1970s for conflicting territorial claims by China, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia (Chan and Li 2015: 37). The anxiety and tension around these disputed zones had seen the negotiation of the UNCLOS in 1982which founded the basis of international maritime regimeswherein states have jurisdiction over the 12 nautical miles off its coastmaking up its ‘territorial waters’and have an ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ for activity below the surface that is within 200 nautical miles of its shore (Hossain 2013: 110-112). Despite China’s ratification of the UNCLOS in 1996 and the diplomatic efforts made between states, China has made a ‘nine-dash claim’ for  sovereignty of a large portion of the South China Sea based on bygone accounts of Chinese navigators and a map outlining this area from the 1940s (Hossain 2013; Chan and Li 2015; De Castro 2016).

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The lack of consensus has seen many of these five states, particularly China, increase and fortify their civil and military capacities, in addition to the passing of domestic laws in an effort to enforce their claims. The conflict regarding the Mischief Reefan atoll 135 nautical miles from the Philippines’ coast of Palwan saw China pass a law depicting the South China Sea as China’s internal waters and allowing the People’s Liberation Army to remove foreign vessels (Busynski in De Castro 2016: 164). Whilst this ultimately prompted the Philippines’ signing of the Visiting Force Agreement with the United States in 1999 for military cooperation between the two given the country’s lacking capacity, China’s distaste in this resulted in their agreement with the Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN) in 2002 to the ‘Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ which called for peaceful negotiations and ‘refraining from occupying uninhabited atolls and shoals’ (De Castro 2016: 165). With its growing economic and political influence in the region following its agreement, China had expanded its ties with the Philippines, whilst incrementally advancing its military capacities (Hong 2012).

Despite this in 2010 the Philippines noted increasing Chinese naval presence in the Spratlays and the Scarborough Shoal areas claimed by the Philippines (De Castro 2016: 167). Prior to this the Philippines sort a ‘Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation’ where claims by all states in the region were noted and disputed zones would allow conflicting parties to jointly develop projects in those areas, which China did not agree to (International Crisis Group in De Castro 2016: 169). Despite the Scarborough Shoal being within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, when they tried to apprehend several Chinese fishing boats in the region a Philippine Navy flagship were faced with Chinese maritime surveillance vessels who prevented the arrest (De Castro 2016: 158). In an attempt to prevent further escalations of armed conflict, the Philippines reduced its capacities in the area however this was unmatched by the Chinese who strengthened their naval presence (De Castro 2016: 163). Despite failed diplomatic measures with the Chinese, ‘the Philippines filed for an arbitration with China under UNCLOS in 2013, however China had refused participation and insisted on bilateral dialogue “on the basis of respecting history and international law”’ (Xinhua in Chan and Li 2015: 38).


Part 2: System-level analysis: Size mattersThe influence of external threats on China’s behaviour


          Focus: Strategic choices of China’s rivals and allies

          Many Sinologists argue that China is being ‘reactively assertive’ in their South China Sea policies (Chan and Li 2015: 42)

          China has complained about increasing involvement of powers outside the 5 states involved in the dispute (particularly the US), arguing it is complicating matters and reducing attempts at peaceful resolutions (Callahan 2005)

          WHY IS UNDERSTANDING THE STRUCTURAL PARAMETERS OF THE INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM IMPORTANT? Need to know to make it for first analysis of the system functions; to understand what the states can and can’t do

          Structure sets the context and general parameters of state behaviour

  • It does NOT necessarily determine what states do and in WHAT FORM FOREIGN POLICY MATERIALISES (Structure is not a good variable to shine light on that)
  • US’ pivot to Asia=> The US still overpowers China of any other state by considerable margins. However, the power threshold it generates has become less insurmountable, opening structural opportunities for China to successfully challenged the US. US is a “regular unipole” (NOT A HYPERPOWER ANYMORE) still strong enough to trigger but not ultimately dominant enough to deter balancing behaviour by other great powers.
    • THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT, ITS STRUCTURAL CHANGE: A CHANGE OF CAPABILITIES (It’s about what states can do that they couldn’t do, say 20-30 years ago): Structural parameter of the international relations system

-          Point 2= Enhanced cooperation of the Philippines and the US

Part 3: Regional-level analysis: China’s riseWho’s rebalancing who?

-          Focus: China’s economic rise (as China’s rise is too all-inclusive) and the importance of the contested territories for its rise

-          2010 Chinese National Defence White Paper = “will never seek hegemony, nor will it adopt the approach of military expansion now or in the future, no matter how its economy levels” (Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China 2010)

  • Neorealist view= Impossible to deny that the rise of China has shifted China’s behaviour and policy (Link to part 4)

-          China’s population and need for natural resources has increased => increased value of South China Sea to China

  • 2005 Chinese National Defence White Paper = “the main problem facing China in its development […] is the contradiction between economic and social development and the relatively strong pressure of the population, natural resources and the environment” (Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China 2005)


Part 4: Domestic level analysis: The values and interests of China’s foreign policies

-          China’s national interests are “the fundamental basis for the formulation of China’s national defense policy” (Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China 2002)

          Xi= Political strongman, more willing to show military might than before (Chan and Li 2015)

  • (Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China 2005) = States that China should be looking to develop and modernise its navy to protect its growing maritime interests


Part 5: Between a rock and a hard place: Cooperation seemingly is seas apart


Concluding remarks

That being said, whilst being controversial in the geopolitical field, China’s shift in compliancy to the UNCLOS




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