The South China Sea has become an arena for indirect great power rivalry which prevents any effort to negotiate a resolution of the issue. The area has become important for China’s wider strategic interests in the Western Pacific as it attempts to challenge America’s military presence there. China has ambitions to extend its maritime and naval power and to acquire the visible attributes of great power status, to which its nationalists aspire. As a mark of that status China requires a naval capability including carriers that can reach out into the Pacific and Indian Oceans and hold off the American navy from interdicting its sea lanes, or intruding into what it regards as its “core interests” in the Western Pacific. China has been attempting to enforce a maritime enclosure policy in the South China Sea which would turn it into national territory. China’s actions have alarmed the ASEAN claimants, Vietnam, the Philippines and also Malaysia, who have sought support from external powers, the US and Japan, in varying degrees. Neither the US nor Japan can allow China to dominate the area in view of its strategic significance and have resisted its moves there. China’s maritime ambitions in the area have stimulated American and Japanese responses giving rise to a rivalry which may escalate in the future.
This chapter examines four small states and one weak state in Southeast Asia to illustrate their reactions to China’s claims in the South China Sea. It argues that size alone does not determine responses: other factors such as elite politics, ethnicity and history also play a role. Cambodia has become an ally of China and adopts China’s position over this issue; while neighbouring Laos attempts to balance between China and Vietnam which are in conflict over the South China Sea. Brunei has turned to China for economic reasons but faces a dilemma as China presses against its own claim in the South China Sea. Singapore is a small trading state which is highly dependent on the regional economic order and the US in particular. Despite its majority Chinese population, it has avoided identification with China over this issue. The Philippines has a population of 103 million but its high dependence on external support and weak institutions of governance have prompted it to behave like a small state seeking security from the US as well as China.