Countering China in the South China Sea

Countering China in the South China Sea

Beijing is trying to divide its neighbors. They need to resist.

On March 18, officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will meet in Singapore to discuss steps towards an elusive code of conduct in the contentious South China Sea dispute. If the past is any indicator, China will ensure that such diplomacy will produce little significant progress even as it continues to coercively change realities on the ground in its favor. While cooler heads hope diplomacy will prevail, hope is not a strategy. Southeast Asian officials and other external partners like the United States and Japan need to use the full range of instruments at their disposal to persuade Beijing about the urgent need for a diplomatic solution, dissuade it from undertaking further destabilizing moves, and prepare for a range of crises in the absence of Chinese cooperation.

Since 2009, China has displayed a growing assertiveness towards ASEAN states in the South China Sea, using a combination of diplomatic, administrative and military instruments to impose unilateral fishing bans, harass vessels, and patrol contested waters. Despite the so-called ‘charm offensive’ by China’s new leadership in the region in 2013, Beijing’s conduct in the South China Sea has remained largely unchanged, with a new fishing law promulgated in January, invasive patrols and encroachments into waters of other claimants, and foot-dragging at talks over a code of conduct it finally agreed to discussing last year. Meanwhile, the specter of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea also continues to loom large. Yet, as former CIA senior analyst Chris Johnson told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year, unlike most other observers China’s leaders continue to see no contradiction between seeking better relations with Southeast Asia and assertively defending their sovereignty claims at the expense of other ASEAN claimants.

Given this, it is now up to ASEAN states and their partners to craft an integrated strategy in the diplomatic, legal and security realms geared towards both steering Beijing away from its assertiveness if possible, and preparing to counter it effectively should it continue or intensify. In the diplomatic domain, ASEAN states and other parties should continue to consistently emphasize the cardinal principle that all countries – including China – need to resolve their disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law. The principal means to reach this objective is a legally binding code of conduct. In spite of Chinese stalling, ASEAN states should remain united in insisting on both its speedy conclusion and meaningful content, including key mechanisms like a crisis management hotline.

While all ASEAN countries ought to be united in pursuit of a code of conduct, the four ASEAN states that have claims in the South China Sea – namely Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – should also take additional steps together given their greater stake in the issue at hand. The main objective would be to thwart China’s efforts to divide the ASEAN claimants (most clearly by isolating the Philippines) by banding together in spite of certain differences in their positions. Greater coordination looks more promising now than it did in the past, with the recent hardening of Malaysia’s stance along with the birth of the ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting held in the Philippines last month. Additionally, external actors beyond just the United States, including the European Union and Australia, need to do their part by speaking out against Chinese transgressions to raise the cost of noncompliance. A rules-based approach to resolving the disputes ought to be a shared global interest, and a greater coalition explicitly calling for this will help increase the pressure on Beijing without it being framed as just a U.S.-China issue.

Even if a code of conduct does come to pass, it will at best be a diplomatic tool to manage tensions in the South China Sea. The sustainable path to actually resolving them lies in the legal realm, with all parties codifying their claims in line with international law which could then open the door to shelving sovereignty disputes and initiating joint resource development. The burden here rests largely with China, whose deliberate ambiguity on the basis for its indefensible nine-dash-line claim submitted to the United Nations in 2009, which covers up to 90 percent of the entire South China Sea, is inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by any stretch of the imagination.

However, Southeast Asian states and the international community have roles to play as well. ASEAN countries should continue challenging China’s nine-dash line claim in legal circles to expose its egregiousness, as the Philippines is now doing via a UN arbitral tribunal in the Hague. To add weight to such initiatives in the Chinese mind, other ASEAN members and external actors should support them either through direct participation or strong public statements, which can be done carefully without explicitly taking sides on sovereignty questions. Finally, the four ASEAN claimant states should also continue to codify the specifics of their own claims in multilateral fora as well as domestic legislation. Greater clarity among ASEAN claimants could both reveal greater congruence in certain areas as well as further expose Beijing’s deliberate ambiguity.

But ASEAN countries and their external partners should not just continue to hope that their efforts will change China’s ambivalence on the code of conduct or its blatant disregard for international law in the South China Sea. They also need to think critically about how to manage tensions if Beijing’s assertiveness continues unabated or grows over time and spills over into other issue areas as well. While the specific decisions eventually made will depend on each individual country, in general ASEAN claimants and other willing Southeast Asian and external states should prioritize increasing coordination, cooperation and crisis management at the domestic, regional and international levels in three specific ways.

First, ASEAN claimants need to redouble efforts to foster greater coordination between the various military and civilian government agencies considered maritime stakeholders. This is crucial not only to promote interagency cooperation in the complex domain of maritime security that touches several areas from fisheries to immigration, but to formulate an integrated approach to rival China’s adroit strategy of using a variety of nonmilitary instruments to enforce its claims in a calibrated way, including coast-guard vessels. Efforts by the Philippines and Brunei to establish national coast-surveillance programs are a useful step, as are more collective endeavors like a seminar on interagency coordination held in October 2013 between Vietnam the United States.

Greater integration at the national level should also be supplemented by more cooperation at the regional and global realms to at least mitigate the asymmetry in capabilities between China and individual ASEAN states. This is particularly necessary with respect to crisis-management mechanisms and scenario-planning. For instance, bilateral-security hotlines can be one useful instrument in managing crises if they are properly resourced, structured and utilized. While discussions have already begun at the regional level, they will likely take time to advance and this should not prevent countries from establishing security hotlines on a bilateral basis, as Malaysia and the Philippines are now reportedly considering.

ASEAN claimant states should also intensify contingency planning related to the South China Sea both nationally and in concert with relevant partners. Broader initiatives are already underway with several countries, including further acquisitions and coast guard cooperation with Japan and increased maritime security cooperation with the United States. But additional focus should be placed on planning for specific crisis scenarios ranging from rogue fishermen who may provoke an unintended bilateral crisis all the way up to potential Chinese economic coercion or blockades. These plans ought to reflect the sophistication of China’s strategy in the South China Sea in terms of the various instruments used and the different levels of military and non-military coercion employed. They should also incorporate current Chinese thinking. For example, one China expert recently told a conference at the Center for New American Security that China is working on a concept called ‘extended coercive diplomacy’ focused on how to coerce an adversary that is aligned with a great power, with U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines being case studies.

Critics will claim that elements of this overall strategy make little sense because it is too risky for weaker ASEAN states to antagonize a much more capable China. But the evidence suggests that is precisely what China is banking on – that the glaring asymmetry in capabilities, coupled with its rising regional influence, will make ASEAN states think twice before risking rupture in relations as long as Beijing’s assertiveness is calibrated to both divide various claimants and avoid drawing in other external players. It is up to Southeast Asian states and other interested actors like the United States and Japan to now think critically about how to counter the full spectrum of Chinese assertiveness proportionately and to do what is necessary make clear what their red lines are. Because in getting Beijing to commit to a peaceful, lawful resolution on the South China Sea disputes, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, it is not enough that all parties do their best; but that they do what is required.