In October 2015, the United States Navy conducted a well-prepared freedom of navigation (FON) operation within 12 nautical miles of the Subi and Mischief reefs off the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS). As The New York Times put it, the major purpose was to “challenge Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea,” because both the Subi and Mischief reefs are artificial islets China has created through land reclamations in the disputed Spratly Islands since 2013. In early 2016, the United States conducted another FON operation in the Paracels. Meanwhile, it is reported that China has deployed missiles on Woody or Yongxing Island.

The United States FON operations signify a new phase of the SCS issue, which has been transformed from enduring disputes over sovereignty and maritime rights among claimants to strategic competition between the United States and China. The United States has made it clear that its navy will continue its FON in the South China Sea in the future. How will China react to future United States FON “provocations”? How will United States-Chinese competitions in the SCS shape the dynamics of Asian security? What will other claimants do facing this “new normal” of competition between China and the United States? Where will outside powers, such as Australia, Japan, ASEAN, etc. stand and what actions will they take?

On Monday and Tuesday 17 and 18 October 2016, the Griffith Asia Institute’s Associate Professor Kai He will host a workshop with the intention to engage International Relations scholars from the United States, China, the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, and Australia in intensive discussions and brainstorming sessions over the above questions. Differing from other workshops on the SCS, which focus more on the legalistic or maritime issues, this workshop will elevate the SCS debate to a strategic level. Employing diverse IR theoretical approaches and methodologies, participants of the workshop will discuss and examine why and how the United States and China compete in the SCS, why and how other states have responded differently, and as importantly, the role of multilateral institutions in mitigating the mounting tensions in the SCS.

A summary of the conference discussions will be shared on our blog, Asia Insights after the conference.