Attention shifted from the South China Sea (SCS) in 2022 as the world faced the Ukraine war and the Taiwan Strait crisis in February and August. Fears that a Ukraine-inspired conflict would break out in the Taiwan Strait did not materialize.
Domestic economic and political concerns, such as inflationary pressures on the economy in the 20
However, China’s maritime coercion against its Southeast Asian and extra-regional rivals continued in the SCS through 2022, with widely reported incidents involving Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Australia.
Several claimants, including China and the Philippines, have continued to engage in construction activities on their existing Spratly Islands outposts. Vietnam has been observed to have carried out significant dredging and landfill work since the beginning of the year.
There could be cause for optimism, however. A flurry of regional summits will conclude in late 2022. The first in-person summit between the Chinese and US presidents on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali should have created some delay for regional countries holding their breath over a China-US conflict.
How China and the United States manage their geostrategic competition in 2023 will greatly influence the geopolitical dynamics in the SCS. The Biden administration has sought to balance pushback against China’s irredentism in the SCS while preventing the rivalry from spiraling out of control.
Recent follow-up to the Biden-Xi Bali meeting, as well as the latest senior US delegation visit to China and a planned trip by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, bode well for a less tense 2023.
On the ground, US Navy freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the SCS refused from the record high of 10 cases in 2020, to five in 2021 and five in 2022 until the mission of the USS Chancellorsville in late November.
While the US military maintains a regular presence in Southeast Asia and the SCS through its routine naval and air missions, the decline in FONOP frequency appears to reflect the desire to implement “guardrails” with Beijing.
The strategic priorities of the ASEAN countries remain skewed towards addressing economic difficulties such as inflationary pressures and even a potential global recession. New attention must be placed on diplomacy to build on the momentum of this year’s summits to stabilize competition in the region.
Relaxation of curbs on international travel will also help restore personal diplomatic initiatives such as the ASEAN-China negotiations on the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS.
The negotiations seem to be resuming with the second draft of the negotiating text, which is currently being discussed. But it has also become clear that the parties involved have backed away from a definitive timeline and many of the differences between the 11 parties to the COC, which hindered progress in negotiations before Covid-19, will continue to wrangle.
China and its ASEAN counterparts will press talks and express achievements, such as readings of the draft negotiation text, for different but convergent reasons. Beijing must show its negotiations as reflecting its desire for peace and stability to combat what it sees as foreign intervention in its disputes.
Meanwhile, ASEAN has been stung by lackluster progress in addressing the Myanmar crisis. With ASEAN’s credibility and relevance continuing to be questioned, the bloc needs a new rallying point and self-validation.
There is unlikely to be a new breakthrough in the COC process in 2023, as the region remains largely invested in domestic socioeconomic priorities. In parallel, the SCS is likely to face twin dynamics of competition and cooperation.
Washington will still conduct FONOPs in the SCS and looks to continue working with close regional allies to project and maintain a military presence in the SCS.
The spate of “minilateral” exercises involving the US and allied militaries continues this pattern of engagement, facilitated by the improvement of the defense postures of some of these allies, such as Japan.
Expanded military engagements of extra-regional powers in Southeast Asia are expected in the coming new year. Indonesia is keen to further expand the scope of exercise Super Garuda Shield in 2023 to include more foreign militaries.
The Philippines and the United States are tipped to build on the momentum of the later months of the Duterte administration by expanding their institutional military links as Manila also explores a Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan.
Southeast Asian parties will continue to seek strategic reassurance through a collective approach with extra-regional partners, while maintaining vibrant and economically driven relations with China. This may induce caution from Beijing in managing its dynamics with its SCS rivals.
Indeed, China’s coercive behavior in the SCS, while remaining consistent, has also shown some signs of restraint. In May, for example, China’s Coast Guard did not intervene when its Philippine counterpart placed navigational buoys in a part of the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone claimed by Beijing.
This could be cold comfort, as Beijing’s actions in the SCS will remain fraught with uncertainty until 2023. Nevertheless, the diplomatic efforts of the parties involved – both regional and extra-regional – in the SCS should offer some space for greater cooperation as countries. the region is dealing with more pressing socioeconomic challenges at home.
Collin Koh is a Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2022 in review and the year ahead.
This article, republished with permission, was first published by the East Asia Forum, which is based out of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University.