Will the South China Sea Become the New Crimea?

People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in Auckland. Flickr/Creative Commons/@ping.shakl

Xi Jinping has successfully avoided maritime overreach—but that might be about to change.

The burgeoning friendship between President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin in recent times reflects the similarities in their personal leadership styles. Both regimes are defined by an emphasis on the individual leader, as opposed to institutions, thereby embodying the “personalist” model in which leaders portray themselves as strong and unique figureheads upon which the fate of the entire nation depends. This model of leadership, which often drives personalist leaders to seek national prestige for their country in order to maintain domestic popularity, can also lead to foreign-policy overreach. While efforts to gain national prestige can result in personalist regimes gaining power abroad, they often also result in the crystallization of alliances among affected nations in resistance to the adventurist regime. Putin is currently suffering the effects of this overreach trap following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Crimea: A Pyrrhic Victory

While Russia is increasingly preoccupied by rising tensions with NATO in the Baltics, Putin’s Eurasian grand strategy is stagnating, as Central Asian nations have become suspicious of possible Russian neo-imperialism following the occupation of Crimea. The strategy’s flagship project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is currently languishing. This is due to Russia’s economic troubles—caused in part by the Western sanctions imposed in reaction to Russia’s actions in Ukraine—filtering through to the Central Asian economies, which rely on Russia for most of their two-way trade. The effect of the sanctions, compounded by the decrease in global oil prices, is demonstrated by the fall in trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Russia, from $28.5 billion in 2013 to $15.5 billion in 2015—a reduction of 45 percent. Moscow’s tendency to prioritize its adventurist foreign policy over regional economic considerations is causing increasing disquiet amongst EEU members, some of whom are becoming progressively disillusioned with the project.

This disillusionment among EEU members and other Central Asian nations toward Putin’s adventurism, and their suspicion of Russian neo-imperialism, may seriously undermine Moscow’s grand strategy. Firstly, it could lead to increased willingness among these nations to seek greater cooperation with the EU and China, at the expense of Russia. Another effect could be EEU member states collaborating to counter Moscow’s dominance of the union. Additionally, Moscow’s lack of funds to drive regional economic integration could result in Central Asian states increasing their focus on domestic reforms in order to spur their own economic development. The resulting reduction in economic dependency on Russia—the current status quo for many of these nations—could lead to increasing autonomy vis-à-vis Moscow.

Given the negative effect of Putin’s overreach in Crimea on his broader strategy, what is the likelihood of Xi suffering the same fate in the South China Sea? The development of Chinese maritime strategy since late 2012 is illuminating.

Xi’s “Maritime Power” Ambition for China

President Xi’s championing of the need for China to become a major maritime power, at a study session of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in July 2013, was a critical turning point. By building on outgoing president Hu Jintao’s speech at the Eighteenth National Congress of the CPC in November 2012—where the maritime-power theme was first introduced—Xi’s consolidation of the ambition marked the first time since the midpoint of the previous millennium that China had articulated a genuine desire to be a dominant maritime power. It also foreshadowed the ambitious and assertive foreign policy that the newly elected leader planned to implement.

At the CPC Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference in October 2013, the first conference of its kind, President Xi outlined an agenda built on China pushing regional disputants to accept its sovereignty claims, as well as conditioning the region to accept China’s “core interests.” Xi’s development of the strategic agenda over the course of 2013 illustrated a significant revision of previous Chinese foreign-policy paradigms: Deng Xiaoping’s model was to “hide your strength, bide your time,” while Hu Jintao was renowned for his strong belief that a peaceful and stable neighboring environment was critical for Chinese economic development.

President Xi’s increased assertiveness was designed to legitimize his “new model of great power relations” with the United States, whereby China would receive a new level of respect and cooperation from its contemporary, reflecting China’s rise to global superpower status. This phrase has been a central part of Xi’s curation of his image as the strong-willed leader, and has earned him significant domestic prestige.

Initial Volatility in the Push for “Maritime Power”

Initial reactions by some Chinese scholars to Xi’s new foreign-policy paradigm were wary. Wang Jisi asserted that China should focus solely on its “march west” to Eurasia and abandon its forceful stance in the western Pacific, as this would only lead to persistent and damaging friction with the United States and its allies. Wang’s wariness seemed to be prescient. Events such as what occurred in the Paracel Islands in May 2014—where the China National Offshore Oil Corporation installed an oil-drilling platform in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone—appeared to be pushing Southeast Asian nations increasingly closer together in resistance against Chinese adventurism. The assertion by CNOOC’s chairman that the corporation would strive to play a key role in achieving Xi’s ambition of China achieving maritime-power status by using drilling rigs as “mobile national territory” and a “strategic weapon” was an indicator that China’s stance in the sea was teetering towards volatility.

This relentless push for maritime preeminence was codified in China’s 2015 Defense White Paper, which declared that the traditional Chinese emphasis on army over navy would be reversed, and that the remit of the People’s Liberation Army Navy would be expanded from territorial defense to include blue-water operations. Exercises to increase PLAN combat readiness, like the joint naval exercise Haishang Lianhe with Russia in May 2014, only served to exacerbate the rising concerns of China’s maritime neighbours.

Cohesive opposition by the regional players to Xi’s South China Sea policy gradually increased throughout 2014 and 2015, peaking at the 2016 arbitration ruling, but fizzling out soon thereafter. The Philippines and the United States, which had been on the verge of organizing an international coalition demanding China abide by the July 2016 ruling, fell at the final hurdle when President Rodrigo Duterte turned instead to a unilateral rapprochement with Beijing.

Philippine involvement is critical for the fortunes of any coalition that will successfully counterbalance China, as the prospects of Vietnam—the other major regional player in the dispute—engaging in an extensive military cooperation with the United States are unlikely. While the United States did rescind its weapons-export restrictions to Vietnam in October 2014, the residual psychological scars of the Vietnam War will persist for some time yet. Furthermore, Vietnam, unlike the Philippines, is traditionally less inclined to engage in strong alliance relationships and then use them as a source of collective strength.

Xi’s Successful Avoidance of Overreach

A major strategic achievement of President Xi has been his ability to learn how to push the boundaries to the limit without fatally overstepping. China’s management of the South Luconia Shoals incident with Malaysia is a case in point. In September 2013, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel dropped anchor in the Malaysian-claimed shoals, sparking hearings in Malaysia’s parliament and extensive complaints from government officials. The CCG finally withdrew the vessel in November 2015, just before Malaysia hosted the ASEAN and East Asia Summits. This adroit timing prevented the issue from becoming a central feature of public discourse during the high-profile summits, which could have led to significant momentum being garnered against China. The salient Chinese achievement was that CCG vessels returned to the shoals almost immediately after the summits, but as the issue had largely disappeared from Malaysian public discourse, it no longer had the potential to spark consolidated resistance.

Xi’s other strategic achievement has been his ability to pursue two-track diplomacy. China has extensively strengthened its economic relationship with the Philippines over recent months, ensuring that the maritime disputes have not been permitted to fatally damage the overall diplomatic relationship. President Xi’s offer of a $10 billion investment package in March 2017 sparked an effusive response from President Duterte, resulting in him declaring that he believed China adequately recognized the Philippines’ territorial claims in the Benham Rise, one of the major previous flashpoints with China. This ability to improve bilateral ties with a nation which China has a running territorial dispute with is not unprecedented: China’s relationship with India has been defined by flowering bilateral ties over the previous ten to fifteen years, despite the still-simmering 1962 border dispute. Xi’s ability to apply this two-track diplomatic strategy with other nations involved in the South China Sea dispute may well determine his success or failure in the region.

Thus far, President Xi appears to have achieved his aims while avoiding the strategic overreach of Putin in Crimea. In fact, Xi’s personalist leadership has to some extent worked in his favor in the South China Sea, his close relationship with Duterte being the prime example. China is continuing to consolidate its gains, as its ongoing infrastructure projects have led to a significant increase in the presence of Chinese vessels in the southern regions of the nine-dash-line territory. As such, China is growing ever closer to establishing de facto control over the South China Sea as it becomes increasingly able to prevent Southeast Asian states from using the waters. While the United States will continue to conduct FONOPS, the current malaise among the United States’ alliance networks in Southeast Asia mean President Xi will remain able to dictate the status quo.

How It Could Still Go Wrong

In light of this, what could occur that would halt China’s growing dominance in the region? While President Xi’s efforts to continue building his close relationship with Duterte are currently serving China well, there is potential for this to backfire. The Filipino public does not share Duterte’s effusive stance on China and President Xi. Filipino legal experts have warned Duterte that he faces impeachment risks if he does not adopt a tougher stance on China (one opposition legislator has in fact already filed an impeachment claim) and leading political figures have cautioned Duterte to reverse his obsequious rhetoric regarding Chinese encroachment. Despite his penchant for ignoring criticism, Duterte may be forced to succumb to mounting public pressure if China fails to temper its stance. A crucial decision looms for Xi in this regard. China’s new seasonal fishing moratorium within the nine-dash line could be the tipping point that causes the Philippines to step away from its current ties with Beijing. Then, if the Trump administration is savvy, the United States would have an opening to rejuvenate the Manila partnership. This could provide the cornerstone around which the United States can then build a successful counterbalancing strategy to China in the South China Sea.

For now, President Xi is winning in the South China Sea. The future direction of the territorial contest is largely dependent on whether Xi maintains his successful pursuit of two-track diplomacy as well as his ability to avoid clearly crossing major red lines. Beginning construction projects on the Scarborough Shoal, for instance, could be the catalyst that would lead to the formation of an international coalition able to halt China.

Nicholas Lyall is a research officer at the Australian National University where he works at the National Security College as well as for the university’s Pacific studies program. His main topics of interest are Russia and China, especially cyber statecraft and maritime security as related to both countries. His recent published works relate to Russian hybrid warfare, primarily with regards to current tensions with NATO.

Image: People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in Auckland. Flickr/Creative Commons/@ping.shakl