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China Trends #6 - Generally Stable? Facing US Pushback in the South China Sea

ARTICLES - 6 August 2020

Building militarized artificial features in the Spratly and seizing Scarborough Shoal are two major achievements of Xi Jinping during his first term in power, as emphasized in his work report to the 19th Party Congress. Under his leadership, China has established a relative superiority vis-à-vis other claimants in the South China Sea in terms of military and law-enforcement presence. This has greatly advanced the Chinese goal of progressively extending effective administrative control over the South China Sea. During Xi Jinping’s second term, even though there have been localized incidents and an overall increase of Chinese presence in the area, China has refrained from risky unilateral moves. This is the result of several factors: a focus on consolidating recent gains, a priority placed on other areas of the confrontation with the United States, a more robust foreign naval presence in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Taiwan taking precedence on the top of China’s international agenda… This piece focuses on Chinese analyses of the unprecedented pushback China is facing from the United States.

The wedge between China and ASEAN

On July 13, the US State Department issued the US Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea.1 The US document characterizes China’s policy as treating the South China Sea as a "maritime empire". The new policy "aligns" the U.S. position on the PRC’s maritime claims in the SCS with the 2016 decision of the Arbitral Tribunal.2 In practice, this means that the nine-dash line can not be considered as a method to delimitate claims in the South China Sea, that the features in the Spratly covered by the arbitration award are not islands in a legal sense and thus do not generate territorial waters or Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Most commentators, like Chen Hanping, senior researcher at the Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies at the University of Nanjing, see in the new American position an attempt to drive a wedge between China and ASEAN.3He notes a correlation between the timing of the US decision and the fact that ASEAN has surpassed the EU to become China’s first trading partner in the first quarter of 2020. In general, the tone in Chinese commentaries aims at sending the message that the US tries to disrupt an otherwise increasingly harmonious relationship between China and ASEAN. Chen Hanping underlines that China has been ASEAN’s main trading partner for 11 consecutive years, and argues that all Asian states should focus on cooperation against Covid-19.

The tone in Chinese commentaries aims at sending the message that the US tries to disrupt an otherwise increasingly harmonious relationship between China and ASEAN.

Such rhetoric stressing the commonality of interests between China and ASEAN countries can also be found in an editorial in the Beijing Daily, which sternly accuses the US of attempting to undermine a relationship described as "stable" between China and ASEAN, at a moment of renewed focus on the negotiation of a Code of Conduct.4 The editorial has high praises for the current second round of negotiations of the draft text because it shows the "determination of all parties" to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.

This emphasis on the diplomatic process is slightly misleading because the adoption of the Single Draft of the South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text in August 2018 has revealed one of the main negotiation goals from a Chinese perspective: to convince ASEAN to create a system of prior authorization to regulate access to the South China Sea for foreign navies. China added to the single draft the point that "The Parties shall not hold joint military exercises with countries from outside the region, unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection" in the 2018 single draft.5 Such an outcome would be inconsistent with freedom of navigation under UNCLOS. It is unlikely that China’s rival claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines would sign up to a system that significantly undermines US extended deterrence. The Chinese goal is thus highly divisive within ASEAN. But most Chinese commentators remain upbeat in the Chinese media, perhaps in an attempt to lead public opinion.

Besides this characterization of the US strategic intention, there is a deeper underlying anxiety among Chinese experts regarding the consequences of the US decision. Zhu Feng, Executive Director of the Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies at the University of Nanjing, argues that the new State Department’s official position amounts to a change of the US role in the region.6 For him, since the establishment of US-PRC relations in 1979, the US acted mostly as a "bystander" (旁观者) in the South China Sea. From his perspective, the United States maintained an overall neutrality during the deadly 1988 Johnson South Reef battle between China and Vietnam, or when the PLA seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995. Zhu Feng notes the US reacted to these Chinese territorial advances by stressing the necessary peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. Closer to now, the 2012 confrontation between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal provided a unique example, according to Zhu Feng, of the US trying to act as a "peace mediator" (和事佬), using a Chinese term with a slightly derogatory connotation (佬). In his piece, Zhu Feng does not address the damage caused by this failed mediation. The seizure of Scarborough Shoal by China undermined the credibility of the Obama administration, raising questions about its ability to defend the territorial status quo in East Asia from Chinese expansionist ambitions.

Looking ahead, for Zhu Feng, the new US position is a prelude to an increased military presence by the United States in the South China Sea, and there is a risk for China that the American position encourages Southeast Asian claimants to take provocative and confrontational actions.

The US military presence

In July 2020, the US Navy deployed the two aircraft-carrier battle groups USS Nimitz and USS Reagan in the first dual carrier exercises in the South China Sea since 2014. This is only the third time that such wargames have been conducted since 2001. One exercise involved the simultaneous deployment of a B-52 nuclear-capable bomber to practice long-range strike missions. Such a spectacular show of military power aims at deterring China from taking the risk of new unilateral moves in the South China Sea and reassures Southeast Asian claimant states, at a time in the Covid-19 pandemic context when the People’s Liberation Army has adopted an assertive posture on territorial issues in the East China Sea and over Taiwan, culminating in the border clash in Ladakh with the Indian army. Combined with the new position issued by the State Department, the US Navy exercises signal a strong resolve to maintain a robust naval presence in the South China Sea, through Freedom of Navigation operations (FONOPs).

Zhang Junshe, researcher at the People's Liberation Army Naval Military Academic Research Institute, describes these US exercises on China Military Network as "futile provocations" (挑衅行动注定徒劳无功) that will not affect the "generally stable" (总体稳定) situation on the South China Sea.7 Echoing the narrative pushed in the Chinese media by experts regarding the change of position by the US on the 2016 arbitration award, Zhang Junshe argues that rather than American naval maneuvers, the main story in the South China Sea is the ongoing negotiation of the Code of Conduct.

Rather than American naval maneuvers, the main story in the South China Sea is the ongoing negotiation of the Code of Conduct.

At the same time, China has in recent years changed its communication regarding US air and naval operations in the South China Sea, stepping up efforts to denounce the constant military presence of the United States in the South China Sea. The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI),8 a think-tank at Peking University led by maritime strategist Hu Bo, and the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, a think-tank under the Foreign Ministry with a constant presence in the opinion and international pages of the Global Times, provide timely and detailed reports of US maritime surveillance, FONOPs and military exercises, most being translated in English, and the SCSPI also has a considerable presence on Twitter. The goal appears to be framing a narrative that instability in the South China Sea is caused by US military presence.

In late June 2020, the Hainan Institute issued a report on US military presence in the Asia-Pacific.9 The report acknowledges an "absolute US military superiority in the Asia-Pacific region, and for a long time".10 It lists the newest deployments by the United States as part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which relies on the 375,000 troops under the Indo-Pacific Command, and overall concentrates 60% of the US Navy's naval ships and 2/3 of the Marine Corps strength. Chinese analysts pay particular attention to the deployment of the B1B bomber from Anderson Airbase in training missions in the East and South China Seas since it has replaced the ageing B-52H.

Three elements will determine the outcome of US-China competition: the struggle for the dominance of maritime affairs in the Western Pacific, the capacity to control maritime trade routes and the capacity to deliver on the needs of allies and friends.

In an interview to the Global Times later translated in English, Wu Shicun, President of the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, argues that "China should not panic.11 We need to know that the US won't have much more practical new moves. Thus we need to integrate our maritime power and study the changes in the mode of future maritime war, and form our own deterrence force." He asserts that the US would not deploy naval power to prevent China from stopping Vietnam’s drilling in the Spratly. However, like Zhu Feng, he worries that the current US posture will be interpreted as an opportunity by Vietnam and the Philippines.

The US annual Freedom of Navigation Report12 lists seven FONOPs conducted in the East and South China Seas in 2019, a level similar to 2017 and 2018 - the reports13 during the Obama administration did not contain the number of FONOPs. In addition to freedom of navigation operations and surveillance flights, the US has also changed its approach to transfers through the Taiwan Strait, with at least seven transits between January and May 2020. Commenting the publication of the Hainan Institute’s report on US military operations, Wu Shicun argues that three elements will determine the outcome of US-China competition: the struggle for the dominance of maritime affairs in the Western Pacific (对于西太平洋海上主导权的争夺), the capacity to control maritime trade routes and the capacity to deliver on the needs of allies and friends. In other words, the balance of power, but also the quality of economic offers and the delivery of public goods.

Chinese strategy: staying the course?

The July developments point to the larger question for China on how to adjust to the US pushback in the South China Sea under the Trump administration. In an in-depth academic analysis, Dai Zheng and Zheng Xianwu, scholars at Nanking University’s South China Sea Center stress the Chinese achievements in the areas of blue economy and marine science and technology since the 18th Party Congress of 2012, which made building a strong maritime power (海洋强国) an official national goal.14 They address China’s strategy in the South China Sea from the wider perspective of the strategic importance of the ocean and describe the process of building a maritime power as a contribution to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

A similar focus on the long term strategic importance can be found in the account that Hu Xin, Research Associate at Hainan’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, gives of the South China Sea Forum, held in Nanjing in late November 2019, an event that brings together leading Chinese experts and academics.15 The conclusion of the discussion is that facing US pressure, China needs to stay on its course in the South China Sea, remain "calm and rational", and pay particular attention to maintaining risks and challenges under control. China needs to find the right balance between "defending Chinese rights" and maintaining regional stability over the long term (长期维权和维稳相结合), until the moment when China reaches a new balance in its relationship with the United States.

From a historical perspective, China’s policy towards the South China Sea in the 1970s and the 1980s was centered on territorial disputes and on the use of military power to defend Chinese claims. Today’s approach is more complex and diversified - Dai Zheng and Zheng Xianwu describe it as a "two-pronged strategy" (双管齐下) based on differentiated treatments (区别对待). The current Chinese strategy mixes elements of cooperation and struggle in a differentiated way towards regional states and non-regional stakeholders, mainly the United States. The authors argue that China has been able to diversify its strategy simply because greater power means more policy options. China is now able to conduct normalized law-enforcement patrols, offer public goods, make greater use of economic cooperation with regional states in support of its strategic goals in the South China Sea. In short, China has departed Deng’s guideline of "hiding talent and biding time" (韬光养晦) to comply with Xi Jinping’s 2013 guideline of "striving for achievements" (奋发有为).

For the two authors, cooperating and struggling simultaneously allows China to "take the initiative" (主动权) in the process of dispute settlement in the South China Sea. They conclude that "cooperation is the main approach, and struggle is supplementary" (合作为主,斗争为辅). For them, that no major crisis has occurred in the South China Sea after Scarborough Shoal and the Spring 2014 standoff with Vietnam over the deployment of China’s 981 Oil Rig in the Paracels is the result of the adoption of the Chinese dual-track policy (双轨方针) in August 2014. This has been defined as handling the historical disputes through direct talks between the parties involved, while maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea jointly with ASEAN.

China has departed Deng’s guideline of "hiding talent and biding time" (韬光养晦) to comply with Xi Jinping’s 2013 guideline of "striving for achievements" (奋发有为).

On the "struggle" side of China’s strategy, there is the need to focus on "interdicting foreign ships from illegally entering the territorial seas and the airspace around Chinese islands and reefs" (反制外国舰机非法进入中国岛礁领空水域), a point in direct contradiction with the 2016 arbitration award. They consider the foreign presence inside the South China Sea in support of Freedom of Navigation as a disruptive factor (扰流), which has an influence on regional trends. But as a factor among others, it should not prevent China from addressing the core of the problem, which is its relationship with Southeast Asia. On a diplomatic level, China should focus on preventing the issue from being "hyped up" (防止其炒作某些话题) in order to avoid negative effects on its relations with claimant states.

The second focus area of "struggle" is preventing claimant states from conducting activities that aim at unilaterally changing the status quo. This remains the official Chinese narrative of the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, which ended in a Chinese victory. To achieve this goal, it is particularly important for China to insist on direct consultations (坚持通过协商解决问题) and avoid the "legalization" (司法化) of the South China Sea disputes. The authors observe that by firmly insisting on this principle, China managed to "break the deadlock" in China-Philippines relations caused by the South China Sea "arbitration storm" (仲裁风波).

But there is also an important cooperative side to China’s South China Sea policy. The authors argue that China should pay attention to promote regional institutionalization so as to "advance China’s moral high ground" (增强中国在南海主权声索中的合道义性). Building a positive image (树立良好形象) takes providing public goods to the region. The authors insist on the importance of the South China Sea Rescue Bureau of the Ministry of Transportation (交通运输部南海救助局), established in 2003, to the construction of China’s positive image According to statistics, as of May 2020, the unit has performed 4,893 rescue missions, successfully rescued 1,244 ships in distress (including 135 foreign ships), rescued 19,608 people in distress (including 1,747 foreigners).16 This recommendation of stressing providing public goods also concludes the account of the 2019 South China Sea Forum summarized by Hu Xin.

In addition, the participants of the 2019 South China Sea Forum place more importance on crisis management diplomacy as a tool. They advocate strengthening military and diplomatic relations with Vietnam and the Philippines to enhance mutual trust with the two most problematic claimant states, and enhancing track 1,5 and track 2 at the bilateral level to promote mutual understanding. Unsurprisingly, the multilateral level, such as the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) is hardly mentioned, as China has more leverage in a bilateral setting to conduct its diplomacy. Crisis management diplomacy to avoid unplanned sea and air encounters and incidents that could lead to escalation is also advocated vis-à-vis the United States.

These articles suggest that Chinese analysts generally see the increased US pushback as a storm that should be weathered patiently, rather than confronted directly, given the asymmetry in military power. They however do not represent a guarantee that the policy choices of the Central Military Commission and the Politburo of the Party will follow such a line.

 

 

1 U.S. Department of State, "U.S. Position on Maritime Claims in the South China Sea"
 United States Department of State, 13 July 2020, https://www.state.gov/u-s-position-on-maritime-claims-in-the-south-china-sea/.
2 Thomas Mensah, Jean-Pierre Cot, Stanislaw Pawlak, et Alfred Soons, "PCA Case No 2013-19 IN THE MATTER OF THE SOUTH CHINA SEA ARBITRATION -before - AN ARBITRAL TRIBUNAL", 2016, https://docs.pca-cpa.org/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-Award.pdf.
3 Cheng Hanping, "Punch in the face! Some ASEAN countries' stance on South China Sea challenges Pompeo's statement (打脸!部分东盟国家的南海问题立场让蓬佩奥的声明相形见绌)", Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies, 16 July 2020, https://nanhai.nju.edu.cn/72/2f/c5320a487983/page.htm
4 "Pompeo's attempts to create trouble in the South China Sea are bound to fail (蓬佩奥之流南海作妖的企图必成泡影)", Beijing Daily, 19 July 2020, http://www.bjd.com.cn/a/202007/19/WS5f144491e4b00aba04d272e5.html
5 Carl Thayer, "A Closer Look at the ASEAN-China Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct", The Diplomat, 13 August 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/08/a-closer-look-at-the-asean-china-single-draft-south-china-sea-code-of-conduct/.
6 Zhu Feng, "U.S. South China Sea policy is undergoing a dangerous transition (美国南海政策正出现危险转型)", Global Times, 16 July 2020, https://opinion.huanqiu.com/article/3z4XGNONw5i.
7 Zhang Junshe, "U.S. military provocations in South China Sea destined to be futile (美在南海的军事挑衅注定徒劳无功)", China Military Online, 13 July 2020, http://www.81.cn/jfjbmap/content/2020-07/13/content_265910.htm.
8 South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, http://www.scspi.org/en
9 Yu Xiaoqing, "China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies Releases Report on U.S. Military Presence in Asia-Pacific: : U.S. Strengthens Military Deterrence Amid Epidemic" (南海研究院发布美亚太军力报告:疫情之下美国加强军事威慑), The Paper, 24 June 2020, https://www.thepaper.cn/newsDetail_forward_7982672.
10 "Report Launch: U.S. Military Presence in the Asia-Pacific 2020 (《美国在亚太地区的军力报告(2020》发布会)", China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, 23 June 2020, http://www.nanhai.org.cn/dynamic-detail/35/9547.html.
11 Zhao Yusha, and Li Sikun, "By Denying China’s Legitimate Claims, US Rips off ‘Fig Leaf’ Used to Cover Its Vile Intention in South China Sea - Global Times", Global Times, 16 July 2020, https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1194778.shtml.
12 U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Freedom of Navigation Report: Fiscal Year 2019", 2019, https://policy.defense.gov/Portals/11/Documents/FY19 %20DoD %20FON %20Report %20FINAL.pdf?ver=2020-07-14-140514-643&timestamp=1594749943344.
13 U.S. Department of Defense, "Annual Freedom of Navigation Reports", Policy.Defense.Gov., https://policy.defense.gov/OUSDP-Offices/FON/.
14 Dai Zheng and Zheng Xianwu, "A preliminary discussion about China’s security strategy in the South China Sea Dispute in the Recent Decade: Differential treatment and a two-pronged strategy (中国近年南海争端安全战略:"区别对待,双管齐下)", Indian Ocean Economic Studies, n. 5, 2019, pp. 106-129.
15 Hu Xin, "The Game of Great Powers and the Development of the South China Sea, a Summary of the 2019 South China Sea Forum (大国博弈与南海局势的发展———2019"南海论坛"综述)", Asia-Pacific Security and Maritime Studies, n. 3, 2020, pp. 66-73.
16 Nanhai Rescue Bureau of the Ministry of Transport of PRC, https://www.nh-rescue.cn/dwgk/index_13.html.

 

 

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