Biting the Cow’s Tongue: Securitization and Capacity Building in the South China Sea

Date01 December 2016
Published date01 December 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Biting the Cow’s Tongue:
Securitization and Capacity
Building in the South
China Sea
Zenel Garcia1
Thomas A. Breslin1
The South China Sea (SCS) territorial disputes have become one of the most
significant security challenges in the East Asian Supercomplex (EAS). Described in
Buzan and Wæver’s classic study as a Great Power Bipolar Supercomplex defined
by China and Japan, the emergence and actions of South Korea and Indonesia as
regional powers have rendered the EAS multipolar and unusually volatile. As the
hierarchy in the EAS transforms into a multipolar one, the securitization of China
has allowed Japan and South Korea to facilitate the capacity building efforts of
Southeast Asian states at the expense of China. As a result, the littoral states
surrounding the SCS have taken advantage of this strategic competition in order
to advance their own interests.
Capacity building, South China Sea, regional security, securitization, speech-acts
In the past two decades, the world has witnessed the transfer of economic dyna-
mism from the West to the East. In particular, East Asia has been at the fore-
front of this transition through its immense economic growth. The region had
an average gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 7.1 per cent in 2013, and
contributed 40 per cent of global growth and one-third of global trade that year,
‘higher than any other region in the world’ (The World Bank, 2013). That trend
continued with the region posting 6.9 and 6.7 per cent growth in 2014 and 2015
respectively (The World Bank, 2015a).
1 Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, Florida International University, USA.
Corresponding author:
Zenel Garcia, 480 NW 103 Terrace, Pembroke Pines, FL 33026, USA.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
3(3) 269–290
2016 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016670703
270 Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(3)
However, despite this economic vitality, East Asia is plagued by numerous
territorial disputes that threaten to undermine the stability required for continued
economic development. Currently, the most unstable and requiring immediate
attention are those in the South China Sea (SCS). Claimants in the SCS, which
include China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and, now,
Indonesia, have disputes that revolve around competing sovereignty claims over
reefs, shoals, their surrounding waters, as well as overlapping Exclusive Economic
Zones (EEZs). Further complicating these disputes are China’s maps featuring
nine dashed lines outlining a cow’s tongue-shaped area covering about 90 per
cent of the SCS (O’Rourke, 2015, p. 18). China has remained ambiguous over the
type of claims the ‘cow’s tongue’ represents (US Department of State, 2014).
However, despite of this ambiguity, the cow’s tongue has encouraged the littoral
states of the SCS to unify in challenging China (ibid.).
These disputes are important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the
waters of the SCS are host to significant maritime trade activity, giving it substantial
strategic importance. It is estimated that over ‘50% of the world’s merchant fleet
tonnage crosses through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits, with the majority
continuing on into the South China Sea’ (Emmers, 2010, p. 65). The SCS is effec-
tively a maritime superhighway. The tanker traffic that passes through the Malacca
Straits ‘is more than three times greater than the Suez Canal traffic, and well over
five times more than the traffic of the Panama Canal’ (Khemakorn, 2006, p. 14).
A second factor is its energy deposits. Although estimates of the oil and gas reserves
in the area vary depending on the institution conducting the study, it is clear that
increasing energy demand by East Asian countries has been a key factor in the
disputes as they venture into disputed waters to exploit these resources. Recent
evidence of this can be found in the ongoing row between China and Vietnam over
the positioning of an oil platform in the Gulf of Tonkin (Blanchard, Rose, & Torode,
2015). Lastly, the third factor that makes the SCS strategically important is its
abundant marine resources. The depletion of coastal fish stocks has led to greater
interest of the contested waters in the SCS, which produces 10 per cent of the
world’s catch (Dupont & Baker, 2014, p. 81).
These three factors, as well as the fact that the SCS is a critical Sea Lane of
Communication (SLOC) for the world, require stability in order to ensure safe
transit and sustained economic growth. However, stability in East Asia has been
undermined in recent years due to increased tensions among key players in
the region. Growing military capabilities by pivotal players in East Asia have
exacerbated existing grievances that in turn fuel patterns of enmity. For example,
China’s military modernization has allowed it to more effectively challenge
Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and push for unilateral
changes in the status quo in the SCS, while Japan’s ‘normalization’ has led to
greater defence spending and political reforms that have allowed Japan to more
effectively assist Southeast Asian states in their efforts to challenge Chinese
territorial claims in the SCS through capacity building programmes. South
Korea, wary of its two larger neighbours, and motivated to play a larger security
role in the region has developed a blue-water navy, adding a new player to the
already crowded waters in the region. These events feed existing patterns of

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT