Small-Stick Diplomacy in the South China Sea

A recent action off the Phillipines has all eyes on China's rising naval prowess. But non-naval services also support Beijing's maritime strategy.

A seemingly quixotic impasse between Philippine and Chinese ships played out this week at Scarborough Shoal, 120-odd miles west of the Philippine island of Luzon. We say “seemingly” because it makes eminently good sense for China to dispatch lightly armed—or even unarmed—noncombat vessels to uphold its territorial claims in the South China Sea. That's what happened at Scarborough Shoal, where no Chinese warships got involved. Beijing's muted approach conforms to its pattern of calibrating deployments of force to the circumstances while holding overwhelming military might in reserve to deter or compel recalcitrant Southeast Asian states.

That's savvy diplomacy. It means using the least force necessary—including nonmilitary ships from its maritime surveillance and law-enforcement services, or “five dragons stirring up the sea,” as one Chinese author calls them. Sea power is about more than men-of-war and ship-launched aircraft, the high-profile implements that grace the cover of Jane's Fighting Ships. Shore-based missiles, aircraft, sensors and command-and-control infrastructure can influence events on the high seas. So can coast guards and maritime-enforcement agencies. Even privately owned assets like merchantmen and fishing boats represent an arm of sea power if they can transport war materiel, monitor foreign ship movements, lay sea mines and the like.

Viewing sea power as a continuum gives China's leadership a range of options, including brandishing a small stick to accomplish its goals. It can do so because Manila and other claimants to regional islands and seas know full well that Beijing may unlimber the big stick—in the form of People's Liberation Army (PLA) ships, warplanes and missiles—and wallop them if they defy its will. The future will probably witness more encounters like the one at Scarborough Shoal unless the Philippines deploys a counterweight to Chinese ambitions, either by accumulating sea power of its own or by attracting help from powerful outsiders.

Communities of Interest

Neither the Philippines nor any other Southeast Asian state is likely to amass sufficient physical power to stand alone against Chinese blandishments. That leaves balancing. But presenting a united front is hard for the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the most obvious candidate to act as a balancing coalition. ASEAN is a notoriously loose regional consortium. True to form, its members have not yet mustered a consensus on the Scarborough Shoal standoff. Nor is the United States eager to take sides. Washington professes agnosticism toward conflicting maritime claims, insisting only that navigational freedoms be preserved.

The vagaries of coalition politics, then, could determine Manila's fortunes at Scarborough Shoal and in future showdowns. Beijing has displayed an impressive capacity to learn from its mistakes since 2010, when its hamfisted tactics frightened China's weaker neighbors into making common cause among themselves and with the United States. “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact,” proclaimed China's foreign minister in one shockingly undiplomatic exchange with his Singaporean counterpart.

The unsaid but unmistakable message behind such in-your-face statements: “Get used to it.” That's a message minor powers situated near major ones take to heart. Hence Southeast Asians' receptiveness to diplomatic and military cooperation with one another and with outsiders like the United States, India and Japan.

China wants to reduce Southeast Asians' newfound propensity for balancing. Since 2010, realizing the error of its ways, Beijing has prosecuted its maritime claims with a lighter hand. For insight into China's small-stick diplomacy, consider military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz is all about pummeling enemy armies, but in passing he urges statesmen to look for opportunities to disrupt the “community of interest” binding together an enemy alliance.

This might not prove too difficult, he implies. After all, “One country may support another's cause, but will never take it so seriously as it takes its own.” Allies and coalition partners contribute token forces unless their survival is at stake, and they look for the exit when the going gets tough. By exercising restraint, then, Beijing can hope to divide and conquer. And indeed, Chinese leaders insist on treating Southeast Asian governments on a one-to-one basis. That keeps ASEAN members from pooling their diplomatic and military resources.

Five Hungry Dragons

ASEAN's drift relative to a unified, determined China coincides with a dramatic surge in Chinese maritime strength. Foreign observers' attention is understandably riveted on the more conspicuous military dimension of China's sea power, as manifest in high-end destroyers, stealth fighters and the nation's first aircraft carrier. But the non-naval maritime services constitute an important—and largely overlooked—facet of Chinese nautical prowess.

Pages