Commentary June 3, 2020

Strategy in the South China Sea

Donald K. Emmerson analyzes China’s tactics in the South China Sea and how the countries of Southeast Asia are reacting to the tensions in the disputed waterway.
Fiery Cross Reef, Spratly Islands
Fiery Cross Reef, Spratly Islands. Loco Steve via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Stretching from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, the South China Sea – the third largest of the world’s 100-plus seas – possesses rich oil and natural gas reserves, constitutes a thriving fishing zone, and transits a vast amount of trade. It is also the center of disputes over issues of territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests involving China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

No Chinese behavior in Southeast Asia illustrates the “binary of strength over weakness more clearly than Beijing’s unilateral, adamant, and expansive assertion of full sovereignty over or proprietary rights in virtually all of the waters and land features in the South China Sea,” writes APARC’s Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson in his upcoming volume The Deer and the Dragon: Southeast Asia and China in the 21st Century. The fallout from COVID-19 and increased military activity in the region raise the risk of conflict between China and the United States, which has a strong interest in preventing China from controlling the disputed waterway.

Against this background, the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, hosted a virtual conversation with Emmerson, titled “Strategy in the South China Sea.” Held on May 12, 2020 (May 13 in Kuala Lumpur), the discussion drew attendees from across the United States and Southeast Asia. Emmerson's analysis focuses on issues such as the tactics China has used to advance its goal in the South China Sea; how the countries of Southeast Asia are reacting to the situation and whether they are pursuing defined strategies regarding the tensions in the region; and what an ASEAN strategy in the South China Sea might look like. Listen to his presentation above or on our SoundCloud channel.

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Michael McFaul, Xueguang Zhou, Karen Eggleston, Gi-Wook Shin, Don Emmerson, and Yong Suk Lee
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