In recent weeks, the international politics of the South China Sea has seen a number of encouraging developments. At their meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing in November, Benigno Aquino claimed to have had a “meeting of minds” with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Also at the APEC meeting, Xi met his Vietnamese counterpart, where similar sentiments were expressed. Interestingly, in an opinion piece in the Jakarta Post in that same month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang mooted an idea to make 2015 “the year of China-ASEAN maritime Cooperation.” An important question for Asian security specialists in 2015 is whether this positive rhetorical momentum can be sustained by the claimants.
It is no coincidence that the turn toward a more positive Chinese stance occurred after the signing of the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) during President Obama’s visit to Manila in 2014. The Philippines’ Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has claimed that since EDCA was signed, Chinese naval forces have been deterred from harassing the resupply of a ship deliberately scuttled by the Filipino Navy on Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
A number of important questions remain to be answered in 2015. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague is currently considering territorial claims in the South China Sea. A decision is expected by late 2015 or early 2016. What decision will it reach? Relatedly, can a Code of Conduct governing inter-state behaviour in the South China Sea be achieved by the relevant parties? Should the situation deteriorate, can the U.S. simultaneously restrain all parties from actions that disrupt the status quo? The year ahead promises to be an interesting one in the South China Sea.