Development, Trade and Foreign Affairs

ANALYTICAL BRIEF: The Disruption in South China Sea and the Implications for RoK


(Photo: BBC News)

SUBJECT: The Chinese oil rig was placed near by the Paracel Islands where the disputed water of Sino-Vietnam has taken place.

SIGNIFICANCE: The dispute is highly associated with the strategic growing of China and the U.S. pivot to Asia which determines the regional and international peace and security. Amid this situation, Republic of Korea has significant challenges and interests, related to the dispute in the region.

ANALYSIS: The confrontation between China and Vietnam has constituted a concern for regional and international peace and security, where the navigation over the sea lane of communications in Southeast Asia is insecure. Despite of the active claimant states, namely China, Vietnam, and Philippines, the tension has also brought in with the strategic involvements from other parties concerned, including non-claimant ASEAN Member States, U.S., India, Japan, and RoK.

Economic Interests: The territorial dispute in South China Sea between China and other claimant states is the central hub of the strategic sea routes providing huge economic benefits, which is paramount important to feed the industrial demands and supply chains not only for those claimant states, but also for respective country in the region and the world at large including RoK. In this respect, there is a bunch of economic interests as following:

  • There are roughly half a billion people who live with 100 miles of the South China Sea coastline, and the volume of shipping through its waters has skyrocketed as China and ASEAN nations increase international trade and oil imports. [1]
  • The South China Sea holds proven oil reserves of at least 700 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. [2]
  • Geology and climate have combined to produce a remarkable amount of biological diversity and immense natural resources in the South China Sea. [3]
  • Distant-water fishing nations such as Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea with advanced tuna fishing fleets account for most of the tuna catch and pay substantial license fees to gain access to the EEZ waters of the region. [4]

The Rise of China: China continues to steadily empower and modernise its military capabilities. In this regard, it is a grave concern for U.S. as China nowadays possibly grows stronger than before. China likely uses its economic power and military might to influence over the rules, norms, and structures of the global governance and system and to provide Chinese interests. Nevertheless, other states will also start to see China as a growing threat to their national security and global system. [5] In fact, after the Vietnam War during 1970s, China has seized opportunities to advance its interest, specifically in South China Sea by grabbing the Paracel Islets, and occupied Mischief Reef after the Soviet’s withdrawal from Cam Ranh Bay.[6] Recently, the Chinese state-owned company placed its rig in disputed waters where Vietnam claimed that the rig is located on its continental shelf complying to 1982 UNCLOS. [7] The tension has highly escalated and led to deadly violent protest in Vietnam.

US Pivot to Asia: As the current global growth toward Asia and the increasing influence of China, President Obama puts the strategic focus in the Asia-Pacific region by seeking greater U.S. re-engagement and leadership in a wide range of economic, political, and strategic cooperation. From this point of view, the priority of rebalance toward the Asian region is to greater strengthen ties with its old alliances in Asia, while at the same, to expand the strategic cooperations with other states in the region as well. Given the fact, there is also the demand signal from countries in the region is seeking to broaden opportunities to train, exercise and interact with the U.S. military. [8] The re-engagement of U.S. foreign policy toward Asia constitutes a potential challenge as it confronts with the increasing influence of China in the region, especially in case of the water dispute between China and other claimant states. The U.S. will therefore need to maintain the military presence which has capabilities to deter Chinese aggression.[9]

Implications for RoK: The recent disruption in sea lanes of communications in South China Sea is highly associated with the U.S. rebalancing to Asia which is strategically challenging with China. It is a critical stance for U.S. regional allies in Asia both claimant states and non-claimant states, including South Korea to boost for greater cooperation by seeking for U.S.’s reassurance on Korean national security. Nevertheless, the involvement of South Korea in disputed water generates a dilemma as well. Giving the fact that, after recent global financial crisis the U.S. has still remained challenging with the financial difficulties at home, so in order to undertake a strategy of pivot, it would essentially need to share its financing roles with allies, more specifically Korea and Japan. [10] In spite of working with U.S. to challenge with the influence of China, South Korea on the other hand has also expanded both political and economic relations with PRC for a number of reasons due to China is obviously a largest trading partner, possibly a Korea’s future economic prosperity, and also a potential diplomatic channel for future Korean unification. [11]

China threat? The possibilities of the rise of China’s influence economically and militarily over the global governance and system will arguably bring a fear with a major security threat. Despite of seeing as threat, China had also helped to address the Asian financial crisis in 1997. More essentially, China has also led the world out of hardship which had occurred most recently in 2008  in which China purchased U.S. securities [12] as in order to stabilise its most important trading partner. In this light, the rise of China seems like a natural stuff which is not a threat, but a challenge; while at the same time, China’s key priorities nowadays are its domestic issues not a worldwide confrontation with the U.S.[13] In this connection, from these two contrasting ideas, China is a threat or challenge is therefore remaining unclear.

Outlook: The most critical thing is that Vietnam has only diplomatic channel and peaceful means to resolve the dispute with China as the United States does not have a treaty obligation[14] with Vietnam. The optional foreign policies have remained less. The Vietnam’s immediate strategy is to cooperate with other claimant states in South China Sea as they have common foe, but there is only Philippines [15] as an active claimer to oppose with China’s actions. In addition, Vietnam can possibly call for international attentions and supports by using several documents providing guidelines and principles such as the 1982 UNCLOS, the 2002 DOC, the Six-Point Principles, the Joint Statement on the 15th ASEAN-China on the 10th Anniversary of DOC, and the expectation of the early conclusion of COC. [16] Although literally true, beside 1982 UNCLOS these documents are not legally binding, and these stuffs have no weight to rebalance the growing power of China. Therefore, the medium and long term strategy is to build up military capabilities and to seek for more cooperation with U.S. by increasing naval presence in the region. Nonetheless, this strategy will make the RoK’s engagement greater into conflict as one of U.S. allies in Asia.

CONCLUSION: The confrontation between China and Vietnam has generated a fear for regional and international peace and security and effected to the freedom of navigation over the sea lane of communications in South China Sea, where comprising of the economic interests and political influence. The ongoing escalated tension has thereby reflected strategic implications providing challenges and opportunities for South Korea in between the Chinese growing influence and the U.S. rebalancing.

Seoul, June 17, 2014

By Khov Ea Hai

Instructed by Prof. Jeffrey Robertson


[1]&[2] Beina Xu, “South China Sea Tension,” Council on Foreign Relations, May 14, 2014, available at

[3]&[4] David Rosenberg, “Governing the South China Sea: From Freedom of the Seas to Ocean Enclosure Movements,” Australian National University, page 5,available at

[5] G. John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” Foreign Affaris, Issued by Feb 2008, available at

[6] Bonnie S. Glaser, “Pivot to Asia: Prepare for Unintended Consequences,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Global Forecast 2012, page 23, available at

[7] Ernest Z. BowerGregory B. Poling, “China-Vietnam Tensions High over Drilling Rig in Disputed Waters,”  Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 7, 2014, available at

[8] Kurt Campbell and Brian Andrews, “Explaining the US ‘Pivot to Asia,” The Asia Group, August 2013, available at

[9] Bonnie S. Glaser, “Pivot to Asia: Prepare for Unintended Consequences,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Global Forecast 2012, page 24, available at

[10] Chung Min-uck, “US pivot to Asia corners Korea,” The Korea Times, Apr 25, 2014, available at

[11] Han Suk-hee, “South Korea Seeks to Balance Relations with China and the United States,” Council on Foreign Relations, Nov 2012, available at

[12] Wayne M. Morrison, “China and the Global Financial Crisis: Implications for the U.S.,” CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Services (CRS), page 8, available at

[13] “The Rise of China and the Interests of the U.S.,” Council on Foreign Relations, The Ripon Forum, Volume 41, No2, Issued by April/May 2007, available at

[14] Matt Spetalnick and Manuel Mogato, Obama’s Asia pivot tested by China bold maritime claims,” Reuters, May 16, 2014, available at

[15] Anh Vu, “Vietnam, Philippines strongly oppose China’ violations at sea: PM,” Thanhnien News, May 22, 2014, available at

[16] Anh Vu, “Vietnam, Philippines strongly oppose China’ violations at sea: PM,” Thanhnien News, May 22, 2014, available at

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This entry was posted on April 1, 2016 by in International Relations and tagged .






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