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  • Raising the Stakes:The Interests of Non-claimant States in the South China Sea Disputes
  • Tiffany Ma (bio) and Michael Wills (bio)

The geopolitical game playing out in the South China Sea is becoming more complicated. China’s increasingly provocative actions are forcing regional players—from near and far—to make clear their interests and positions on the ongoing territorial disputes. In December 2015, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet issued a tough warning against China’s attempt to establish “so-called military zones” around its artificial islands and criticized its unilateral assertiveness as unacceptable.1 Although a non-claimant, the United States, given its role as a regional security guarantor, has long been an important stakeholder in the management and settlement of the disputes. However, China’s recent escalatory actions and behavior are leading more regional players to engage directly on South China Sea issues, both in the diplomatic arena and in the contested waters. Going forward, these non-claimant parties will likely play a greater role in influencing events in the South China Sea.

This Asia Policy roundtable provides a timely survey of regional perspectives from the most involved non-claimant states, Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States—as well as two multilateral organizations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union. Despite their geographic, political, and economic differences, it is clear that very real strategic interests drive all these non-claimant stakeholders when it comes to developments in the South China Sea.

This is perhaps unsurprising given regional stakeholders’ dependence on critical sea lines of communication for shipping. The South China Sea contains the main arteries of global trade, with more than $5 trillion of the world’s [End Page 2] seaborne trade passing through its waters every year.2 These are also vital energy lifelines, providing transit for a third of global crude oil and half of global liquefied natural gas.3 For East Asian countries like South Korea and Japan, dependence is particularly acute with approximately 66% and 60%, respectively, of their energy imports passing through the South China Sea.4 Given vested economic interests, these regional stakeholders are wary of disruptions to trade from a geopolitical crisis, or outright conflict, over the contested waters.

Another commonality among the non-claimant states is a fundamental interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and the rights of passage and overflight in the South China Sea. All of the non-claimants also call for peaceful resolution of the disputes in accordance with international norms and law. This is particularly true for the two multilateral institutions examined here. ASEAN, as Alice Ba argues, needs to see a peaceful, negotiated outcome to the disputes; anything less would threaten the organization’s fundamental approach of pursuing consensus-based solutions in the face of great-power interests. For the European Union, which, as Mathieu Duchâtel notes, sees itself as a normative power, failure to support international legal outcomes would similarly threaten the institution’s approach to collective security. Efforts by non-claimant parties to uphold a rules-based order and preserve access to the maritime commons can help consolidate a broader understanding of acceptable actions by the claimant states. Over time, this may reinforce pressure on any claimants that choose to engage in unacceptable behavior.

Beyond diplomatic statements calling for de-escalation and peaceful resolution of the disputes, several of the non-claimant states have undertaken specific maritime deployments in the South China Sea to signal their interest, concern, and resolve. These range from the high-profile freedom of navigation operations undertaken by the United States, which Admiral Thomas Fargo describes, to quieter missions undertaken by Australia, which Rory Medcalf notes signal that Canberra will continue to assert its rights and encourage a rules-based approach. India, Abhijit Singh writes, has also increased its operational presence in the South China Sea, with a contingent [End Page 3] of four frigates completing a two-month tour in June 2015 and one frigate making a subsequent deployment to the Philippines in November.

Several non-claimant states have also stepped up their military cooperation with and arms sales to some of the Southeast Asian...


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