China’s Patient but Insistent South China Sea Grab
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China’s Patient but Insistent South China Sea Grab

A retired People’s Liberation Army senior colonel recently wrote that the South China Sea “is far more dangerous” than Taiwan as a potential trigger for a US-China war. 

His reasoning was that while close encounters between US and People’s Republic of China ships and aircraft are rare near Taiwan, they are frequent in the South China Sea, and could easily lead to an accidental shooting incident that escalates into a larger military conflict.  

It is more plausible, however, to argue that the South China Sea is less war-prone than the Taiwan Strait. Beijing says increasing US support is pushing Taiwan toward independence, which the Chinese government has committed itself to go to war to prevent. 

In contrast, US “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea, in which US Navy vessels briefly sail through Chinese-claimed waters, do little if anything to weaken China’s position.

While both Taiwan and the South China Sea are cases of PRC expansionism, China’s policy toward the latter is characterized by patience – although buttressed by an insistence that other governments must not make permanent gains at China’s expense. 

The PRC is uncompromising on the desired end state: ownership of the maritime territory and land features within its nine-dash line. Yet Beijing is willing to defer realization of that objective well into the future. It trades off a speedy victory for a less contentious one.

Is it fair to call China’s policy “expansionism”? 

Beijing’s official articulation of its position is limited to the nine-dash line (sometimes with a tenth dash added to encompass Taiwan) and an oft-repeated statement, “China has undisputable sovereignty over the islands and their adjacent waters in the South China Sea.”

Every summer since 1999, Beijing has unilaterally imposed a ban on foreigners fishing in the northern part of the South China Sea far beyond any reasonable interpretation of a Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ).  This is a calculated demonstration of administrative control. 

Recently, in response to the many instances of PRC ships engaging in harassment or unauthorized activities near the coasts of Southeast Asian countries, PRC spokespersons have added: “There is no such thing as [China] entering in other countries’ exclusive economic zones,” seemingly suggesting that Beijing does not accept the principle of other countries having EEZs in the South China Sea.

The totality of PRC policy indicates an attempt to annex international waters and airspace, along with waters and features over which other governments claim they have ownership rights, and to convert them into Chinese territory. That constitutes expansionism. 

Every expansionist power in the modern era has claimed that its annexation of foreign territory was justified. For its part, Beijing argues that historical Chinese usage and maps inherited from previous Chinese governments prove that the South China Sea rightfully belongs to China.

This obfuscates the issue by coating it with a veneer of irredentism, which seems less aggressive – that is, the Chinese are claiming territory they believe is theirs, not territory they believe belongs to other countries.

Unfortunately for Beijing, however, the widely accepted treaty produced by the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not support China’s claims. Despite being a signatory to the UNCLOS treaty, Beijing has disregarded the treaty’s relevance to the South China Sea dispute, famously blowing off the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration decision that went against China.

If there is no basis for Chinese irredentism, we are left with Chinese expansionism. It is, however, a patient expansionism. Pressing for a quick victory would entail a relatively high level of conflict. 

At a minimum, it would intensify fears among regional states that the newly-risen China is a ravenous bully bent on fulfilling a self-interested agenda. It would also likely involve China in a military conflict. The long-term consequence would be to lock at least some regional states into counter-China security arrangements.

It would be far better, from Beijing’s standpoint, for regional capitals to individually reach the conclusion that resistance is futile, and that their better option is to accommodate China by accepting the vision of benevolent PRC ownership of the South China Sea.

Regime type is an important factor in Beijing’s patience. With respect to domestic politics, the PRC government can afford to take the long view because the ruling Chinese Communist Party has no challengers and paramount ruler Xi Jinping seems assured of lifetime tenure.

The PRC seeks to win without fighting by demonstrating overwhelming relative strength. China’s navy, coast guard and fishing fleet are all the world’s largest by numbers of ships. The PRC Coast Guard includes some repainted navy warships and boasts the world’s largest cutter, which weighs more than a US Navy cruiser.

The PRC government employs hundreds of civilian fishing boats to swarm and occupy parts of the South China Sea, and backup coast guard and navy vessels are never far away.  None of the other claimants can compete with this vast armada. The omnipresence of Chinese ships signals that rival claimants cannot win.

Frequent PRC harassment of foreign vessels evinces a policy decision to rely on low-level intimidation rather than the kind of direct, violent military action that China opted for in 1988 to seize Johnson South Reef from Vietnam.

At the same time, Beijing offers assurances to make it easier for neighbors to accommodate the Chinese agenda. China says it doesn’t interfere with other countries’ freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Beijing offers joint development projects with individual claimant states.

The PRC also invites rival claimants to reach a settlement with China via bilateral negotiations.  Importantly, however, this is a format that would maximize China’s leverage as the much more powerful of the two states at the table. Beijing eschews permitting the other claimant states to negotiate as a group against China.

The PRC agreed to the non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) in 2002, and has remained involved in negotiations on a more robust Code of Conduct (CoC) since then.

By any reasonable interpretation, however, China has violated the declaration’s prohibitions against “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” and against seizing new territory. Since 2002 the PRC has created new military bases on hundreds of acres of reclaimed land in the South China Sea as well as occupying Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines EEZ and to which Philippine fishermen previously had access.

Beijing has demanded that a code of conduct

  • should not be legally binding;
  • should not cover the Paracel Islands (which Vietnam claims) or Scarborough Shoal (which the Philippines claims);
  • should forbid claimant states from bringing in foreign companies for resource exploitation and from holding joint military exercises in the South China Sea with countries outside the region (such as the USA); and
  • should require that the claimants settle their disputes among themselves by consensus rather than appealing to international courts working from UNCLOS guidelines.

Recently Beijing has expressed interest in quickly reaching agreement on a code of conduct. The motivation for this new urgency seems to be a desire to lock out the influence of the United States, which the PRC perceives as increasing its efforts to oppose Chinese claims.

PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in 2022 that Southeast Asia was in danger of  “being used as chess pieces in major power rivalry” and that “the future of our region should be in our own hands.” For the Chinese government, apparent support for the declaration and for a code of conduct is a mostly cynical exercise lacking intent to make any significant compromises.  

This leads to the final element of PRC policy. Beijing’s patience is conditioned on an assessment that China’s progress toward achieving its preferred end-state is improving, even if only gradually. The Chinese government intervenes, often jarringly, where it believes there is a danger of losing ground to rival claimants or the United States.     

The situation at Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) inside the Philippines’ EEZ is a good illustration. Both Beijing and Manila claim the feature as national territory.

The Philippines intentionally grounded the World War II-era tank landing ship Sierra Madre on the shoal in 1999 to serve as a guard post for Philippine soldiers. The ship is now a dilapidated hulk. The soldiers inhabiting the ship require regular resupply by other Philippine ships.

The official Chinese position is that resupply is allowable as “a provisional, special arrangement out of humanitarian considerations,” but that the Philippine government should remove the ship from the shoal. 

In practice, Chinese vessels sometimes block and sometimes shadow resupply missions, and are especially aggressive in obstructing attempts to deliver construction materials to repair the Sierra Madre. 

In 2021, Chinese vessels reportedly fired high-pressure water cannon at Philippine vessels trying to reach the Sierra Madre. On February 6 this year, according to the Philippine Coast Guard, a PRC vessel made aggressively dangerous blocking maneuvers and aimed a powerful laser at a Philippines patrol ship attempting to approach and resupply the Sierra Madre. The laser temporarily blinded some of the patrol ship’s crew.

The Philippine government released video evidence of the laser attack. Unable to plausibly deny it, Beijing said its coast guard vessel used a harmless hand-held laser (not a “military grade laser” as alleged) to measure the speed and distance of the Philippine ship. 

Second Thomas Shoal exemplifies several broader aspects of PRC policy. Beijing does not demand an immediate realization of its ultimate goal (removal of the grounded ship), but is content with regular and low-level harassment to remind the Philippines that it must eventually capitulate.

Chinese attacks against Philippine ships remain in the gray zone – water cannon and lasers, not naval gunfire.  Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said the laser attack was not sufficient to involve the US-Philippine defense treaty.

Beijing seems comfortable with a large gap between its words and deeds. The deeds signal a willingness to act with ruthless violence if necessary, while the words aim to maintain Beijing’s desired reasonable and non-aggressive image.

The steady deterioration of the ship suggests time is on the PRC’s side. Beijing reacts strongly, however, to any movement that will permanently undercut China’s position, such as repair work that would extend the life of the Sierra Madre.

Patient expansionism is preferable to urgent expansionism. But there is still much wrong with China’s South China Sea policy: intimidation, disingenuity and disdain for international law.

And even if the level of war-proneness is lower than in the Taiwan Strait, China does more than its share to maintain high geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea.

Source : Asia Times