Far from revisiting its assertive posturing in adjacent waters, China is seemingly determined to consolidate its position in the South China Sea at the expense of its smaller neighbors. The latest satellite imagery, released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, indicate extensive Chinese construction activities in highly contested areas, particularly the Spratly Islands, which have been actively claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
Though Vietnam has occupied the greatest number of contested features in the Spratlys, China is the most capable, ambitious (and geographically distant) claimant in the area. Given the magnitude of the power asymmetry between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors, China has the wherewithal to unilaterally dictate the tempo and trajectory of maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Despite being a relative late-comer, China has rapidly augmented its position, artificially transforming highly strategic features such as the Fiery Cross Reef, which has been enlarged to eleven times its original size.
The reef is a formidable military garrison, with up to two hundred Chinese troops stationed there. It is expected to host its own airstrip in the near future, a crucial prelude to what could become a de facto Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. This would complement China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea, paving the way for China to dominate the skies above the entire first chain of islands in the western Pacific.
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Some analysts have argued that China has been simply fortifying its position in features it has taken control of since the latter decades of the 20th century. Therefore, according to these observers, there should be no cause for alarm, since Beijing is supposedly just fortifying rather than expanding its presence in the Spratly chain of islands.
Yet, China has also been reasserting its recent occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, which it forcibly wrested control of after a precarious showdown with the Philippines in mid-2012. The contested feature falls well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but China has upped the ante by persistently denying access to Filipino fishermen straddling close to the fisheries-resources-rich Scarborough Shoal.
When it comes to territorial disputes, China has not recalibrated its “peripheral diplomacy.” There is little evidence that Xi Jinping is following through on his early-2014 declaration that Beijing is opposed to “hegemonism,” and committed to “peaceful development and safeguarding world peace with all other countries.”
The Scramble in the Pacific
The South China Sea is often likened to the Persian Gulf, a conflict-prone area that represents one of the world’s most critical Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs)—and a massive source of hydrocarbon resources. But the South China Sea happens to be, first and foremost, extremely rich in fisheries resources, a key source of livelihood for tens of millions of people residing in coastal regions of East Asia, and, to a lesser degree, in hydrocarbon resources. This makes the South China Sea arguably an even more economically significant and resource-diverse SLOC than the Persian Gulf.
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Compared to the strategic landscape in the Persian Gulf, the scope and breadth of maritime competition in the South China Sea is far more complicated. In the Persian Gulf, the Iranians represent a solitary revisionist power confronting an armada of American naval forces, backed by a heavily-armed coalition of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The matrix of competition in the South China Sea, in contrast, is more fluid and multi-dimensional, with various regional and extra-regional actors vying for prized resources and/or strategic depth in the area. With the rapid deterioration of marine and fisheries resources in the area, largely thanks to large-scale illegal fishing (mostly by Chinese vessels), the impetus for locking up depleting resources in the South China Sea has reached new heights.
China recently finalized a comprehensive fisheries survey across the South China Sea, reflecting its growing concern over the livelihood of millions of Chinese fisher folks, who depend on unimpeded access to large-scale marine resources. China’s most recent survey suggests between 73 million and 172 million tons of mesopelagic fishery reserves in the contested areas.
In the absence of democratic elections, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) primarily relies on its economic performance to generate legitimacy and prevent social upheavals. So clearly there are domestic political considerations behind China’s resource-motivated move into the South China Sea, aside from the widely reported necessity to appease hardline nationalist constituencies in the military and civilian circles.
Though China’s estimates of hydrocarbon reserves in the South China Sea have been largely contradicted by more credible sources, Beijing’s exploration schemes in the area have continued apace. Most recently, Beijing boasted about discovery of the Lingshui 17-2 gas field, which is located about 150 kilometers south of China’s southernmost province of Hainan. China may have withdrawn its giant oilrig from Vietnamese claimed areas, most likely to avoid a total breakdown in bilateral relations with Hanoi, but it is clearly ramping up its exploration activities in other contested areas.
Where is the ASEAN?
Some of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) members, including Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, have been alarmed by both China’s actions and its rhetoric vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes. The early-2013 appointment of Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign ministry’s leading Asia expert, as China’s foreign minister, raised hopes of better relations between Beijing and its ASEAN counterparts.
Wang was directly involved in the high-stakes negotiations over the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DoC) in the South China Sea, and displayed tremendous diplomatic dexterity when he served as China’s ambassador to Japan. The appointment signaled how Xi was perhaps serious about containing territorial disputes with neighboring countries, as explicitly mentioned in his late-2013 speech on the centrality of “peripheral diplomacy” to China’s long-term interests.
So far, however, Wang has sounded as hawkish as some of his hardline counterparts in the Chinese civilian and military bureaucracy. This may have something to do with the weakening influence of the Chinese foreign ministry in shaping Beijing’s foreign policy as a whole host of national and regional agencies try to shape China’s peripheral diplomacy.
Unwilling to be outdone by (proudly-nationalist) colleagues in other branches of the Chinese state, Chinese diplomats have tried to project toughness over the country’s sweeping territorial claims in adjacent waters. Long gone are the days, especially under the Jiang Zemin administration, when the Chinese foreign ministry acted as the voice of reason and moderation in Chinese foreign policy.
In a recent press conference, Wang angered many ASEAN members by chastising China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, particularly Vietnam, for supposedly engaging “in illegal construction in another person’s [China’s] house.” He went so far as brazenly claiming that China “does not accept criticism from others when we are merely building facilities in our own yard,” since Beijing has “every right to do things that are lawful and justified [within China’s nine-dash-line].”
Far from ameliorating maritime tensions with neighboring countries, Wang has increasingly sounded like his moderate-turned-hawkish predecessor, Yang Jiechi, who purportedly shocked his Southeast Asian counterparts by crassly stating, while staring at his Singaporean counterpart, that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact” during the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Hanoi.
China has also been frustrating ongoing efforts at establishing a multilateral mediation of the South China Sea disputes. Not only has it opposed compulsory arbitration of the ongoing maritime disputes, formally boycotting the ongoing arbitration proceedings at The Hague, it has also blocked efforts by ASEAN to establish a Code of Conduct (CoC) to govern maritime disputes.
During the ASEAN Defense Senior Officials' Meeting Plus, held in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, China vetoed the call by ASEAN members to place the CoC issue on the agenda of the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM Plus) meeting later this year. When it comes to sensitive issues such as the territorial disputes, China has effectively become— mainly thanks to its huge economic sway over many Southeast Asian countries— a veto-bearing honorary member of the ASEAN.
Reflecting growing fears over China’s designs in the South China Sea, Filipino officials recently made a decision to effectively evict eighteen Chinese nationals, who have been working in the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP). The Chinese technicians were working on behalf of the State Grid Corporation of China, which, quite astonishingly, happens to hold a 40 percent stake in the Philippine national electric grid.
After months of constant warning about the possibility of China sabotaging strategic sectors like electricity in an event of outright conflict in the South China Sea, Manila has implicitly mentioned national security-related concerns as the basis to refuse the renewal of visas of the Chinese nationals.
Overall, what is clear is that China seems confident and determined to consolidate its claims in the South China Sea, and, so far, there seems to be no effective counter-strategy to contain Beijing’s maneuvering in adjacent waters.