Challenging Western Narrative Of China’s New War In South China Sea – Analysis


There is a conventional wisdom arguing that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is preparing for war against the world.   The use of so-called unrestricted warfare is arguably China’s strategic mantra to defeat adversaries and win battles against opponents preferably without actual fighting.

Unrestricted warfare is a hybrid form of warfare using military and non-military measures to achieve victory in battles using all available resources: political, economic, socio-cultural, legal, environmental, informational and technological.  There is nothing new about this hybrid method. This so-called new war has already been practiced during the ancient times. What is new is its present application to new situations, new technologies, new battlefields, and new players with new intentions.

In the existing literature, unrestricted warfare is being used by others to mean new warfare, irregular warfare, asymmetric warfare, gray-zone warfare and the like.  In its current practice, however, unrestricted warfare is pejoratively associated with China’s “grand strategy” in its march towards so-called “world domination”, especially in the context of China’s competition with major powers, mainly with the United States.   China is also accused of using unrestricted warfare to assert China’s sovereignty over or to impose its control of Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and even South China and East China Seas.  

This conventional wisdom on China’s unrestricted warfare is highly ethnocentric for being biased in support of Western perspective, which, in the context of China’s growing power, is simplistic, and ideologically motivated rather than scholarly driven.   The popular Western narrative of China’s unrestricted warfare is deliberately creating an image of China that is posing a serious threat to the world.  The United States’ Indo-Pacific Strategy is upholding this narrative by declaring China as a threat along with Russia, Iran and North Korea.     

There is no doubt that China is conducting military and para-military activities in the South China Sea to advance its national interests.  These activities are viewed to part of China’s application of unrestricted warfare in the South China Sea.  

But closer observations of the many activities happening in the South China Sea region, other parties like Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei and even the Philippines are also doing the same but not as huge as China’s actions for obvious reasons.  But the world easily notices China’s activities because it is the big elephant in the room.  In fact, China’s activities are now too obvious not to be noticed, especially by major powers like the US, the  self-proclaimed champion of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,

China’s activities in the South China Sea are being interpreted not only in the context of territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictional conflict.  China’s actions in the South China Sea is also being viewed within the frame of major power competitions in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.  

To contend that China is preparing for war in the South China Sea is just looking at one side of the coin.  In the context of US-China major power rivalry, China indeed is preparing militarily to defend its interests in major flashpoints of conflicts in Asia involving the US:  the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea.

In my experiences interacting with various think tanks in China and Southeast Asia involved in South China Sea issues, China is reaching out with its Southeast Asian neighbors to prepare for peace in the South China Sea. That is the other side of the coin: promoting peace in the South China Sea.   

Chinese and Southeast Asian scholars and experts want peace and not war in the South China Sea.  In many international conferences in China,  there are tremendous discussions on how to promote pragmatic cooperation, blue economy, good ocean governance, conflict avoidance and preventive diplomacy in the South China Sea.

When China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea (SCS) on 4 November 2002, they have the expressed intention to “consolidate and develop the friendship and cooperation” among parties in order to promote “a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighborliness and mutual trust” among them.   They committed to pursue pragmatic cooperation in the following functional areas:

  • Marine environmental protection;
  • Marine scientific research;
  • Safety of navigation and communication at sea;
  • Search and rescue operation; and
  • Combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms as well as international terrorism

However, the DOC had inherent limitations in managing SCS conflicts because of unclear geographic scope, vague legal character, and ambiguous implementing mechanisms. Parties even set these limitations upon themselves because of their own national interests.   Nonetheless, the DOC paved the way, set the tone, and framed the negotiations on the COC.   

In 2014, China and ASEAN started to discuss the details of the COC, and agreed to adopt the Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) on 3 August 2018. The adoption of the SDNT was a milestone in China-ASEAN relations on the SCS as they finally agreed to the eventual conclusion of the COC “in accordance with international laws, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”.  The SDNT reaffirmed the principle of “duty to cooperate” in the South China Sea. However, China and ASEAN still have unresolved issues pertaining to geographic scope, nature of activities to be covered, dispute settlement, the duty to cooperate; the role of third parties, and the legal status of the COC. 

When it comes to territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictional conflicts in the South China Sea, China is talking with all parties to promote peace through friendship and cooperation. There is no doubt that other parties have serious issues against China on the ramification of the South China Sea disputes.  Parties in the South China Sea disputes have actual differences on their national positions.  But these are not irreconcilable differences.  We can in fact manage our differences through direct consultations and negotiations and not through military competition.

I think China’s military preparation in the South China Sea is not mainly about territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictional conflicts.  It is largely about the issue of the possibility of military conflicts with the United States arising from their competing views of the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.  The US used to enjoy the South China Sea as an “American lake” during the cold war.  Things have changed in the South China Sea after the cold war.

China is not preparing for war against its neighbors in the South China Sea and beyond.  As articulated in its Global Security Initiative, China wants world peace and international security.    China also wants peace for the whole world to economically develop as elaborated in its Global Development Initiatives.  That is why China is implementing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and even the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to achieve peace with neighbors through free trade and open commerce.    China is also advancing the Global Civilizational Initiatives to promote harmony rather than clash of world’s civilizations.

However, China current global initiatives are proposing a new global order that is threatening the existing one created by the Western world.   In that context, China is a threat specifically to the Western world.  But China is not necessarily a threat to the whole world. The rest of the world, particularly in the global South, regards China as an economic opportunity with concomitant security challenges that can be surmounted through development cooperation rather than military competition.  

The way ahead in the South China Sea is therefore not war but peace.

Delivered at the Forum, “New War in the South China Sea: Framing China’s Unrestricted Warfare and the Role of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy” organized by the East-West Center in Washington DC on 12 July 2023.

Rommel C. Banlaoi

Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR), President of the Philippine Society for International Security Studies (PSISS) and Convenor of the Network for the Prevention of Violent Extremism in the Philippines (NPVEP). He is the President of Philippines-China Friendship Society and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC). He has served as the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS).

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