China's Mad Dash for the South China Sea

"China has already established the skeleton of an ADIZ, thanks to an emerging network of airstrips and military garrisons on contested features, backed by ever-expanding military and paramilitary patrols across the South China Sea."

No more hiding its claws, no more biding its time, China has unquestionably entered a new era of assertiveness, casting aside Deng Xiaoping’s decades-long call for moderation, humility, and calculation in foreign policy. China is slowly but surely moving from consolidating its claims on features it has been occupying for decades to dominating the entire South China Sea, gradually achieving the capability to fully drive out Southeast Asian claimant states from other features under their control. Quite naturally, a sense of panic has gripped neighboring countries such as the Philippines, which have been locked in a bitter and seemingly hopeless maritime spat with their giant neighbor. We are no longer just talking about hypotheticals here; China is unabashedly operationalizing its sweeping claims across adjacent waters.

Far from resorting to its frequent tactic of pure obfuscation, the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)—supposedly, the “voice of moderation” in China’s state apparatus—has become increasingly forthright and lucid in its defense of China’s assertive behavior in adjacent waters. After months of constant denial, China’s feisty Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying has boldly declared: “China is entitled to set up ADIZs [Air Defense Identification Zone]” in adjacent waters, and a “decision in this regard depends on whether the air safety is threatened and to what extent it is threatened.”

Although, quite ironically, she also dismissed growing speculation that China will stand up an ADIZ in the South China Sea, dismissing it as a possible propaganda ploy by the Philippines and others, and arguing “Under these conditions, I think that individuals [such as the Philippines are] hyping up an ADIZ, that China possibly wants to set one up in the South China Sea, this obviously has ulterior motives." In short, China is entitled to an ADIZ in areas where it exercises “inherent and indisputable sovereignty,” and neighboring countries should just keep silent about it. A few weeks ago, the MFA adopted a similarly indignant and self-righteous position, when it basically asked ASEAN to refrain from saying anything about China’s massive reclamation activities in the South China Sea.

In our democratic societies, transparency is generally seen as a positive thing. But when it comes to the South China Sea disputes, China’s growing honestly is not necessarily a good thing, as it reflects Beijing’s confidence that it can present a territorial fait accompli to its neighbors and a strategic coup de grâce against Washington’s demand for freedom of navigation in international waters.  Yet, China’s strategic hubris is also inspiring a “maritime coalition of the willing” on its peripheries, defying the conventional wisdom that China has supposedly managed to buy the loyalties of its neighbors with its economic largesse. Even the ever-cautious South Korea has become vocally critical and openly outraged by China’s tendency to “try to influence our [South Korea] security policy.”

More than ever, Asia is hedging its bets, fully welcoming Chinese economic incentives in recognition of the relative decline of the West and Japan, but also continuing to look to the United States as an anchor of geopolitical equilibrium in the region.

The New Normal

Back in March, MFA astonished the region and the broader international community when it chose to reveal its broad objectives in the South China Sea, providing the rationale behind its mind-boggling geo-engineering overhaul of the land features in the area. Beijing mentioned “improving the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands” as among the many supposedly benign purposes of its massive real estate expansion in disputed waters, and claimed “China holds a clear and consistent stance on the South China Sea issue.”