The South China Sea (SCS) disputes are among the world’s most sensible and complex geopolitical questions. Three reasons render such disputes particularly complex: the number of stakeholders involved, the conflicting claims, and the economic and strategic importance related to the control of the SCS. These factors make it very hard to reach a solution successfully easing out tensions and guaranteeing the openness of the region – especially as great power competition is always in the background. In this competitive context, it is crucial for Ottawa to adopt a dynamic foreign policy, linking issues together, to strategically use all possible leverages to advance Canada’s interests, namely its sovereignty, security, and economic prosperity. In this perspective, this hot take offers a dynamic strategic analysis. First, the Royal Canadian Navy’s (RCN) operations in the SCS and diplomatic support of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) are good to advance Canada’s economic and security interests in the SCS. Second, strategic cooperation with China on mutually shared interests could maximize Canada’s interests both in the SCS and in the Arctic. Ottawa’s recognition of the Qiongzhou Strait as internal Chinese waters in exchange of Beijing’s recognition of the Northwest Passage as Canadian internal waters could indeed help to secure Canada’s sovereignty in the Arctic, in addition to be consistent with Ottawa’s economic interests in the SCS.
What’s the problem with the South China Sea?
The South China Sea (SCS) disputes oppose topographical and maritime claims made by various regional actors, namely: Brunei, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. China wants to exercise its sovereignty over 90% the SCS according to its nine-dash-line delimitation based on historical arguments contrary to international law. The attractiveness, whether strategically or economically, of the South China Sea, is considerable. Economically, around $3.2 trillion USD in yearly trade flows through these waters. The SCS is also known to contain both significant fisheries and lucrative oil and gas reserves. Strategically, the SCS is central to China in order to project military power beyond its borders in case of conflict with rival powers.
China’s assertiveness in the SCS is nothing new and has constantly been increasing since 1970. China is acting like a regional hegemon as it intends to get back what it historically enjoyed, meaning a dominant position in the region prior to be displaced by the West after the Opium Wars in the 19th century. Assertive actions are characterized by the pursuit of narrowly defined interests through bold policies that contradict other states’ reasonable and legitimate interests. Four types of assertive actions are identifiable. 1) declarative assertiveness (verbal assertions, diplomatic notes, Wolf Warrior diplomacy); 2) demonstrative actions (unilateral administration of disputed possessions); 3) coercive actions (punishment through economic sanctions, warning shots etc.) and; 4) the use of outright force (sinking vessels). In China’s case, this means the regular harassment of regional actors like the Philippines and its seismic activities; bullying foreign oil companies involved in Vietnam’s energy projects located in contested waters; the unilateral extension of Beijing’s administrative presence in the SCS through its coast guard; and the construction of artificial islands on various reefs in the Spratly and Paracel Archipelagos and the militarization of some of them.
These assertive actions and China’s dominant economic position have greatly helped China’s revisionist ambitions to secure national objectives at the expense of UNCLOS. Despite legal actions attempted by regional actors to deter Chinese expansion, the situation has not improved. Worried by the invasive Chinese presence, Kuala Lumpur submitted an extended shelf claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, hoping to temper Chinese disturbances in the area. From December 2019 to July 2020, many reclamations and statements were publicly issued by multiple stakeholders in the SCS: one statement from Brunei’s Foreign Ministry and five notes; two notes from Malaysia; two notes from the Philippines; and three notes from Vietnam.
Non-claimants took part as well, like Australia with its 2020 note verbal, which officializes its alignment with the U.S. Canberra also publicly asked for the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Ruling to be enforced. The latter ruling is the result of a previous case initiated by the Philippines in 2013 against China. Manilla argued that, according to UNCLOS, China’s historic rights and the nine-dash-line have no legal basis; that the maritime constructions used by Beijing to assert its claims are not valid islands that grant exclusive economic zone entitlement; and that China prevents the Philippines from exercising its sovereign rights.
Why is the South China Sea Important for Canada?
Many conflictual claims held by regional actors are clashing over the SCS. This tensed environment is particularly problematic as the region is home to the world’s second-busiest maritime route. As a group, ASEAN countries would represent Canada’s sixth largest trading partner if the free trade agreement under negotiation is signed, although China is still a far more important economic partner for Canada as it ranks second. In 2018, Canada-ASEAN trade nevertheless reached $25 billion USD. Southeast Asia is one of the world’s fastest-growing economic regions. Canada’s investments there are significant and concern many sectors such as mining, high tech, oil/gas, telecommunications and others. If regional tensions reach a climax to such an extent that a blockade on China is imposed , the openness of the region will inevitably be impacted. This will further impact the fluidity of the transit of goods and necessarily lower economic exchanges between Southeast Asia regional countries and the world.
Canada’s Role in ASEAN
There is a convergence of interests between Canada and those in favor of stopping Chinese regional expansionism. Regional actors fear Chinese revisionism because it threatens their sovereignty. This same revisionism also endangers the openness of the region and, by extension, Canada’s economic interests. As a result, the goal for Ottawa is to get regional actors to work in multilateral institutions to reach a code of conduct to lower regional tensions emanating from China’s territorial extension and to make sure the SCS remains an open, rules-based place.
China’s prosperity is dependent on international trade to export merchandises, especially as its population is aging rapidly. So, it is unlikely that Beijing will risk a complete shutdown of maritime routes by ratcheting up its assertiveness as it would suffer tremendous economic backlashes in consequence, although accidents can go out of hands. The Chinese Communist Party’ (CCP) legitimacy is based on economic progress. Since economic growth is significantly linked to the openness of maritime routes to export goods, the CCP’s interests ultimately join those of Canada about securing the openness of the SCS.
To achieve this objective, Canada must support ASEAN countries to develop consensus toward a biding code of conduct for the SCS as it is best conducive to stability and openness. However, many analysts and commentators see the reach of a code of conduct as highly unlikely. In fact, discussions for a code of conduct have first started in 1996 and have always been obstructed by China’s unilateralism and lack of cooperation. However, in the absence of a better alternative, working at the diplomatic level to get China and regional actors to agree on a code of conduct should be prioritized. But Cambodia, Brunei and Laos, all ASEAN members, always side with China on the necessity to settle SCS’s disputes bilaterally and thus render complicated the reach of a code of conduct. Beijing’s economic weight and massive importance in these countries’ development strategies explain such favorable inclinations, just like the fact that these countries have no claim in the SCS, except for Brunei. These three countries should, as a result, be the object of special attention from Canadian diplomatic services during ASEAN dialogues as they are the ones hedging the most toward China. It is in Canada’s interests to ensure that Beijing’s expansion is checked through a code of conduct agreed upon multilaterally. And that is why it is important to get ASEAN members to reach consensus on a way to regulate SCS security questions even though it is an arduous task.
But if regional actors, and especially China, do not abide by international law, a legally binding code of conduct becomes pointless as it will simply not be respected. That is why Canada should push for the respect of UNCLOS as well. The respect of the rules-based order is sine qua non condition for ASEAN to finally be able to create a biding code of conduct that is not the result of one’s unilateral preferences. Thus, Canada should both foster the reach of a regional agreement about a set of guiding rules and normatively work to diffuse the importance of UNCLOS’ authority.
Freedom of Navigation Operations
If Ottawa must invest diplomatic efforts in ASEAN processes to foster the reach of a code of conduct, it should also keep sending its Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in the SCS. It is important to enforce the right of innocent passage because it is what permits to de facto maintain the openness of the region, in addition to effectively build up pressure on China to make it accept an ASEAN-made, biding, and enforceable code of conduct for the SCS. But Ottawa should nonetheless be careful to distance the RCN’s navigation operations from American Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). In its most ambitious FONOPs, America goes as close as 12 nautical miles from Chinese coasts. Even though such exercises are totally legal, Canada should remain prudent not to align too closely its maritime operations on its southern neighbor by, for instance, not sailing together with the U.S. on highly sensitive areas like in the Taiwan strait. This is because cultivating some distance with the U.S. helps to avoid suffering unnecessary costs arising from entanglement in Sino-American competition. Since the newly formed AUKUS security pact does not include Canada, Ottawa should leave the heavy lifting to others.
This being said, navigation operations in the SCS are useful to exercise a leverage on China. Particularly when they are, as some American FONOPs, taking place merely 12 nautical miles away from Chinese coasts. In fact, we know that China wants America, and by extension Canada, out of its backyard. So, the goal is to get China to understand that its unilateral expansion in the SCS mechanically equates to an increase of Western presence in the SCS. If Beijing really wants to see the regional presence of foreign powers diminish, then cooperating to reach a code of conduct will, at some point, become appealing. Ultimately, Beijing has no interest in elevating regional tensions to such an extent that international trade would be disrupted. A code of conduct could help to decrease chances of international trade disruption as well as to regulate Western regional presence. So, there is room for cooperation.
UNCLOS, the Arctic and Issue Linkage
Canada has serious stakes in the SCS, but also in the Arctic as the sea-ice is melting and uncovers lots of natural resources and several new maritime routes. Among them is the Northwest Passage. It is a narrow waterway considered by Ottawa as internal waters and as international waters by Washington. Ottawa’s juridical interests in the Northwest Passage converge with those of Beijing in the Qiongzhou Strait. Beijing considers the latter strait, located between Hainan Island and China’s mainland, as internal waters just like Canada does in the Arctic for the Northwest Passage – both countries invoke historical rights. America, on its part, opposes both claims.
Canada has a legally strategic interest in backing China’s position regarding the Qiongzhou Strait to avoid a precedent that would be detrimental to Canada’s interest over the juridical status it desires for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic. The argument is also true in reverse for China. That’s where issue linkage becomes useful. Issue linkage occurs when a state links two foreign policy issues together, implying that resolution of one issue cannot happen without resolution of the other. Beijing relies on international law to secure the Qiongzhou Strait’s legal status as internal waters. At the same time, China consider UNCLOS as illegitimate when it comes to other of its claims elsewhere in the SCS. So, the Canadian recognition of Qiongzhou Strait as Chinese internal waters is a leverage that can be used to push China to recognize the authority of UNCLOS in the SCS more generally. This could help Beijing to adopt a more coherent approach toward international law. It could also encourage Beijing to reciprocate and recognize Canada’s claim on the Northwest Passage as internal waters.
Relying on UNCLOS’ provisions is thus both in the interests of Canada and China to secure their respective internal waters – the Northwest Passage for the former, Qiongzhou Strait for the latter. Furthermore, if UNCLOS prevail in the SCS and that a code of conduct is agreed upon, the rules-based order is strengthened. The stronger is the rules-based order worldwide, the better it is for Canada’s interests. Important too, this convergence of interests between China and Canada constitutes an avenue to decrease tensions between the two countries.
Outcome like the closing of Southeast Asia as a result of SCS disputes would surely impact Canadian economic interests. This is because Canadian capacity to export and import goods would diminish if the flux of international trade were to be reduced. That’s why diplomatic efforts must aim to convince China to always rely on international law – and not just where it fits its interests – which includes the SCS. Ottawa should hence foster the reach of a code of conduct for the SCS. Royal Canadian Navy’s navigation operations in the SCS should also be maintained, without completely aligning such operations on American ones. Increasing Canada’s cooperation with its European allies and with other link-minded Southeast Asian partners by conducting maritime exercises together must be prioritized too. Canada and ASEAN countries share the same interest in upholding the rules-based order and in keeping the SCS open. These states, for many, fear to be forced to choose a side. They have crucial economic links with China but are at the same time dependent on Washington for their security. It follows that they have interests in securing the openness of the region because it allows them to cultivate both relationships without favoring one over the other. Meanwhile, both Canada and China would benefit from recognizing each other’s claims that the Northwest Passage and the Qiongzhou Strait are internal waters. This convergence of interests helps to reduce Sino-Canadian tensions, to secure the openness of the SCS and Ottawa’s sovereignty on the Northwest Passage.