While the world has been busy and preoccupied with the conflict in the Middle-East, the refugee problem that it has spawned, finding a solution to the intransigent Syrian issue and coming to terms with the rise and rise of militant Islam, the South China Sea has percolated to becoming an issue that could have more global repercussions than any of those challenges.
The increasing tension between the US and China in the South China Sea has not received the attention that it deserves.
The South China Sea is a strategic sub-region of the Indo-Pacific and a critical economic corridor, which caters for the passage of $5 trillion in annual trade. It is bordered by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam—all of whom have territorial and/or economic claims on it, making it crucially significant to geo-political developments. The major islands and reef formations are the Spratly, Paracel, Pratas, Natuna islands and the Scarborough Reef. The South China Sea is reported to hold as yet untapped but substantial reserves of oil and gas. Further, the Asian economic growth has increased commercial shipping traffic in the region, underlining the criticality of the South China Sea to future growth and stability.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), conducted in 1982 and signed in 1994, regulates the maritime economic rights of nations broadly based on territorial waters and continental baselines. Although the UNCLOS has been ratified by all coastal nations surrounding the South China Sea, legal and territorial disputes persist, especially around the Spratly and Paracel islands and the Scarborough Reef. Other than for Singapore and Brunei, all the other nations have conflicting and overlapping claims over the Spratly islands chain. China and Vietnam have clashed twice, in 1974 and 1988 over the Paracel islands, which is occupied by China. The Scarborough Reef—around 160 kilometres from the Philippines and 800 kilometres from China—is claimed by Taiwan, China and the Philippines.
China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea based on what is referred to as the ‘nine-dash-line’ map, first published in 1947 by the Chinese Ministry of the Interior, which draws its maritime borders stretching hundreds of miles south and east from Hainan, the southernmost province of the mainland. China claims that the nine-dash-line map is based on historical evidence and followed up in 1958 with a Declaration of China’s Territorial Sea that claimed Chinese sovereignty over almost all the islands in the region. Other nations dispute these ‘historical’ claims and the UNCLOS also does not ratify them. For example, Vietnam states that China had no claim over the Paracel islands before 1940 and also that the islands were ruled by Vietnam as far back as the 17th century, declaring that it has documents to prove this.
China’s Claims and the Regional Fallout
In 2014, Chinese maps showed the nine-dash-line covering all the islands in the South China Sea as well as Taiwan. At the same time, in May 2014, China started drilling operations near Paracel islands, at a spot about 129 nautical miles for Vietnam, eliciting strong protest from that country. Vietnam send its coastguard ships to ward off the oil rig and in the ensuing melee a Vietnamese fishing vessel was sunk. This resulted in large-scale anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, which may have been a contributory factor that ultimately led to the Chinese withdrawing the drilling rig. Although the issue was contained, it started a national debate in Vietnam regarding the nation’s political and economic dependence on China. The 2014 stand-off had the effect of accelerating a long-term, but till then nascent, Vietnamese effort to improve relations with the US and other regional as well as international powers in the Western world.
On 19 January 2016, China once again moved the same oil rig into disputed waters with Vietnam. This move coincided with the Vietnamese Party Conference being conducted to elect the supreme leader for the next five years. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry website states that the rig is in Vietnamese waters while China denies this claim stating that it is operating in its own waters. The newly elected Vietnamese leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, is seen as pro-Chinese and relatively conservative. Domestic opinion regarding Chinese activities in disputed maritime territories is highly nationalistic and therefore Trong will have to demonstrate his intentions to maintain the nation’s territorial integrity. Balancing inherent Communist sympathy with the harsh reality of China’s aggressive and expansionist stance in the South China Sea will be difficult in the long-term. The new leadership will have to craft at least a medium term strategy to counter Chinese moves.
The Philippines has lodged a formal legal case with the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 to settle its dispute with China in the South China Sea, which China sees as an international embarrassment. Even so, China is unlikely to submit to international arbitration. In more recent times the islands have moved to being the flashpoints in regional politics. In April 2015, satellite images showed that China had started to build a runway on reclaimed land in the Spratly islands. This is not something new, since in the past other regional nations have also indulged in reclamation around the islands. However, it is the scale of Chinese reclamation activities that has alarmed the smaller nations. China has so far built seven artificial islands in the disputed island chains, mainly in the Spratlys. In the past 18 months alone it has reclaimed 3000 acres in comparison to a mere 215 acres that have been reclaimed by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam combined in the past 40 years. All the Chinese artificial islands have helipads and there is one 3000 metre runway on Fiery Cross Reef, while another is under construction in Subi Reef. In addition, Mischief Reef has two military facilities and also hosts a naval base. This is a serious effort at creating the infrastructure to control the South China Sea.
Several issues in the South China Sea however lie in the grey zones of legality. For instance, only islands that can sustain human habitation are entitled to the legal rights mentioned in UNCLOS beyond a 500-meter safety zone. However, there is vagueness in the Law of the Sea in defining whether the islands are habitable or not. There is also no clear directives regarding the relationship between the 200 kilometre Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and international military activities in that zone. Both China and India consider any external military activity in their EEZs to be illegal. Should either of the nations opt to enforce this self-proclaimed writ, it could lead to serious confrontations.
China – Patience and Denial as Security Strategies
As the regional and international opinions about Chinese actions have started to become more vociferous, China has increasingly emphasised its official claim that ‘the South China Sea has belonged to China since ancient times’. China now claims ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over 90 per cent of South China Sea and refuses to discuss the matter in multi-national forums or attend any judicial proceedings. In October 2015, the US sailed a guided-missile destroyer 12 nautical miles from one of the new islands being militarised, asserting its freedom of navigation in the region. China was prompt to respond by issuing a statement warning the US ‘not to make trouble out of nothing’.
On 7 November 2015, in a speech given at the National University of Singapore, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s claim to the South China Sea and asked countries from ‘outside’ the region to not interfere and upset the prevailing ‘peaceful and stable environment’. This was an obvious and pointed reference to the US freedom of navigation operation. In conjunction with such statements from the highest leadership, China has also made repeated statements that it is prepared to ‘defend national sovereignty’ at all costs. Here it an analysis of the progress of Chinese foreign policy and how it has been influenced by the nation’s increasing economic and military power is revealing of its long-term aspirations.
Since 2009, the strategic focus of Chinese diplomacy has been the protection of its core interests; no compromise is accepted and China has repeatedly said that the core interests will be protected, by military means if necessary. The three core interests are:
- Maintaining the fundamental political system and state security;
- State sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and South China Sea islands, areas that are specifically mentioned; and
- The continued development of its economy and society.
Until 2011, the foreign policy remained ‘keeping a low profile and achieving something’. With the change of leadership and the internal appreciation of the nation’s increased power, this changed to ‘striving for achievement to realise the Chinese dream’. In 2014, China unveiled the concept of ‘major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics’—this was China’s announcement that it had arrived to take its ‘rightful’ place as a global power.
In pursuing its ultimate goal of dominating the South China Sea, China has been cautious to use vague language, even to voice its protest. It has so far not specifically referred to any of the islands by name. Further, it avoids answering any question whether or not China has controlling rights over the surrounding waters of the newly created islands such as the Subi Reef, which the US naval ship passed in October. This lack of specifics is noticeable even in China’s amorphous explanation of the nine-dash-line map.
When this ambiguity in the Chinese claims is combined with the overt assertiveness that has been on display for the past six months or so, the situation verges on the dangerous. There is no clarity regarding the Chinese perspective of the status of the new man-made islands, while there is increasing and visible hawkishness in the statements of the Chinese military leadership, which are worrisome developments. At least for the moment it is certain that China will not stop its island building activities and will continue their militarisation through introducing military assets and aircraft into the newly created islands. Adopting ambiguity as a policy indicates that China will continue to expand its military presence in the South China Sea. These actions will manifest as security and geo-political challenges in the near term.
The Regional Response
China’s occupation of the islands and reclamation efforts are direct attempts to enhance its military control over the South China Sea, which have made the smaller regional nations extremely uncomfortable. Since there have already been minor skirmishes over the years, the regional disputants view the recent actions as conflict escalation in which China enjoys a disproportionate asymmetric power differential advantage. Accordingly, they have started to hedge their bets—especially Vietnam and the Philippines who are particularly affected—and have initiated steps to reduce the risks that come with total economic and military dependence on China. A newfound cautiousness is visible in all bilateral interactions. These nations have also internationalised the South China Sea issue by raising it in all ASEAN-led multi-national forums; insisting on creating a code of conduct; and increasing military ties with as many nations as possible.
The reaction of the Southeast Asian nations to China’s increasing intransigence has so far been carefully crafted and seems the most sensible. They have concentrated on managing the systemic risks that accompany dealings with any great, or would-be-great, power. The actions have not been about countering or containing either China or US. However, they are influenced by three factors that are shrouded in uncertainty, and over which they have no control. First, there is no guarantee of long term US commitment to the Indo-Pacific, particularly the South China Sea, and also the ability of the US to sustain its involvement. Second, there is a certain level of opaqueness in Chinese foreign policy and therefore difficulty in understanding China’s future intentions. Third, at least for the moment there is no clear indication of the direction that the US-China relationship will take, even in the immediate future. Hedging their dealings with both China and US provides a stabilising influence on the region, at least for the time being. ASEAN is central to managing the economic and, to a lesser extent, security issues in the region and preserving its neutrality is crucial to the stability of the region. However, the US, in a subtle manner, is attempting to inject an anti-China bias in trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). This could be counter-productive to regional stability.
The United States – Lacking a Strategy
The imperceptible Chinese move to enforce the nine-dash-line map and take control of the South China Sea has now become the most serious strategic tension between the US and China. In its own way Washington challenges Beijing’s right to enlarge tiny specks of rocks in the South China Sea into islands and further to militarise them. However, for China the area that it wants to dominate is the nation’s commercial lifeline—about 75 per cent of all its oil imports come through the sea routes here. On its part, the US has so far studiously avoided taking sides in specific disputes between China and its neighbours, but overtly defends the right to freedom of navigation for all in the South China Sea. It also provides indirect support to the regional nations that China is attempting to bully into submission in bilateral dealings. For example in November 2015, the US announced plans to spend $250 million on modernisation programs for regional navies.
Only the US has the power to challenge China’s actions directly, which may become necessary considering the fact that China charts its own course without taking into consideration the rules and regulations that govern international politics. However, the US is preoccupied—with the chaos in the Middle East; the emphatic re-emergence of Russia as a competent military and political power; and the volatile Presidential election process that is already in train. In addition, the Obama administration is in its waning days and do not seem to have the capacity to decipher and address multiple challenges simultaneously. The current troubles of the US and its inability to bring to bear sufficient military power and political influence in the Indo-Pacific is music to China’s ears. China will exercise inordinate patience to achieve its objectives. The only action initiated by the US so far is to insist on freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and to rally its allies to do the same. Unfortunately freedom of navigation is a tactic and cannot be substituted for strategy.
At least for the time being, sailing a warship close to the artificial Chinese islands to establish freedom of navigation rights is only proving that one can do it. It does not prove anything else and nor does it establish a permanent presence in the disputed region. At some future date, sooner rather than later, when it has built up sufficiently robust power in the region, China will question this freedom, insisting that their prior permission is required to exercise freedom of navigation in ‘their’ territorial waters. What then? Will the US and its allies go to war with China over freedom of navigation? Unlikely. Mature national leadership understands the pitfalls of military stand-offs and the chances of accidentally entering into a state of undeclared war.
China’s Future Actions
China’s concerted effort to achieve maritime domination and control of the South China Sea demonstrates a mindset that is focused on achieving mastery of the entire Western Pacific. The island building activity is only a prelude. From October 2015, the Chinese military has been routinely warning aircraft that attempt to fly into the airspace over the disputed areas to leave, in direct contravention of international freedom of navigation rights. These actions have made the rhetoric of statements and mutual accusations between China and other nations increasingly terse making peaceful resolution of disputes that much more difficult. There is a fundamental dichotomy between China’s claim of sovereign control within the nine-dash-line and the concept of freedom of navigation in the global commons. They do not match.
Chine sees the US insistence on freedom of navigation and it’s sending of warships as a temporary irritant that will eventually diminish and go away once further Chinese control is established. Till now the US actions in the South China Sea has been restricted to these operations and China has opted to ignore them, other than putting out rhetorical and intentionally vague statements. The concept of freedom of navigation emphasises the legal standing of UNCLOS and the need for acquiescence for international law. It cannot be construed as a push-back for China’s attempt at dominating the South China Sea. However, China has never been a nation that has paid much heed to, or even recognised, international principles and norms. Unilateral suspension of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea by China is definitely on the cards.
A cursory appraisal of China’s actions point towards its desire to eventually enforce an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire South China Sea. Controlling the air over the South China Sea is critical to dominating surface and sub-surface movements. Enforcement of the ADIZ will be a military enterprise, undertaken at a later stage when China has the necessary forces in place. Creation of the new islands and the construction of military airfields on them is the first step towards air domination of the region. Simultaneously the PLA Air Force has signed a deal for the acquisition of 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft, arguably one of the world’s best, from Russia. When the combination of the new airfields and the Su-35 capability mature into operational readiness, China will be well-positioned to enforce its will over the South China Sea.
Recent writings by prominent Chinese scholars who enjoy State sponsorship is an indirect indication of the developmental direction of China’s foreign policy. A large number of these writings insist that China needs to adopt a more assertive foreign policy and also to establish military bases abroad in friendly and allied countries. Similarly these papers and essays consider the current South China Sea policy as ‘right’ and in the legitimate pursuance of safeguarding Chinese interests. Further, there are also suggestions that China should scale back economic assistance to smaller nations and instead switch to military assistance in order to increase strategic cooperation. When seen along with China’s obsessive insistence on bilateral dialogue, this is an ominous sign, which has the potential to drive a wedge between regional nations that currently share stable relations. The recently visible assertiveness and actions in the South China Sea is a unified, well-crafted and intentional development centrally controlled by Beijing.
With the current volatility of the situation in the South China Sea, bordering on a stand-off, the question that comes up is whether or not China will be deterred by an emerging US-Japan-India-Australia rectangular combine. The answer is, ‘highly unlikely’. Since the concept of compromise has always been alien to China, dialogue, diplomacy or even appeasement will not work in resolving the challenge. In the past few years of reinventing itself China has revealed its inherent belief that its smaller regional neighbours are only an extension of itself and therefore must adhere to the rules as China lays them down. There is no cognisance being given of the fact such a situation is tantamount to the regional nations surrendering their sovereignty. The for-the-time-being-restrained explanations of the nine-dash-line map and its veracity ‘since ancient times’ is only a manifestation of Chian’s belief in its God-given right to power and prominence.
The South China Sea challenge is not purely and Indo-Pacific issue. Constraints in passage have ramifications for global trade and therefore it must remain part of the global commons, and not be made China’s Inland Sea. The vital question is whether or not the global community is willing to enforce international law to achieve this aim. Perhaps more importantly, the question should be whether or not the international community will be able to enforce its writ on China. China is not amenable to any conflict resolution process in the South China Sea. It will obfuscate and delay, edging the region towards military anarchy.
The US needs to act, not react as it is currently doing. International waters cannot be turned into special zones by any nation through building islands and militarising them. The US initiative, to consciously build a coalition of nations against Chinese military assertiveness and its biased interpretation of UNCLOS, is a good first step. Any unilateral action by China to disrupt this initiative will only bring the affected nations closer.
All super power ambitions start at the regional level and China is no exception. China is a rising power. At times there is no reasoning with such powers, they are focused increasing their power and influence irrespective of any and all external influences. China is today adopting the strategy of patience—continuing to build and militarise the South China Sea islands while denying any wrong doing. When all parts of the build-up are in place to its satisfaction, China will enforce its will in the South China Sea. At that time, in the not too distant future, their actions could only be questioned by going to war—a war that is unlikely to be won by either party. The best result that a presumable US-led coalition can aim to achieve in this scenario is a stalemate. How long can such a state of affairs be sustained?
If the current trajectory is pursued by China and the US, confrontation is assured. The question therefore, is not ‘if’ but ‘when’?
First published at sanukay.wordpress.com