Beijing is making gradual progress toward achieving its objective of gaining international assent to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. With each decade, more of Beijing’s agenda is realized. During the 1970s, China limited its attempted enforcement of Chinese claims mostly to the Paracels Islands, which lies in the northern part of the South China Sea, closer to China. Beijing’s violent seizure of Johnson South Reef from Vietnam in 1988 was jarring but unusual. More typical of the era was the “creeping invasion” of the 1990s, exemplified by the rickety makeshift structures built on Mischief Reef in the more southerly Spratly Group. In 1999 Beijing began attempting to impose bans on fishing in the South China Sea during the summer months, making the case that China has administrative control.
The trend is culminating in the Xi Jinping era, wherein China embraces unabashed great-power behavior. Chinese harassment of non-Chinese vessels engaged in fishing or resource extraction, sometimes by ramming them, has become commonplace up to the southernmost edge of the infamous nine-dashed line. And, of course, Xi has overseen the building of three sizable Chinese bases on man-made sandbars that give the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a permanent presence in the distant southern half of the South China Sea. Countervailing moves by the international community—including complaints by Southeast Asian countries, the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China, and numerous “freedom of navigation” operations by the U.S. Navy—have failed to stop China’s march toward consolidating its claims.
Achieving its objectives in the South China Sea would endow China with economic, political and strategic benefits. Beijing would have first rights to the resources in the sea, such as fish, and the resources in the seabed, such as oil, natural gas, and minerals. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could bolster its legitimacy by boasting to the Chinese public that it had defeated foreign attempts to steal “Chinese” territory. And China would significantly improve its strategic position in the region.
China’s claim is intentionally vague. Beijing refuses to specify its position within the terms set out by the UN’s Law of the Sea Treaty (of which China is a signatory). Instead it points to the nine-dashed line and repeats the mantra of “indisputable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and their adjacent waters.” Based on the actual behavior of Chinese government personnel and commandeered Chinese fishing fleets in the South China Sea, Beijing seems to consider the great majority of the South China Sea (as demarcated by the nine-dashed line) to be Chinese territorial waters—i.e., an ownership level equivalent to that of land within mainland China’s borders. The Law of the Sea allows for “innocent passage” of foreign warships through territorial waters, but China also routinely condemns transits of U.S. warships through the South China Sea that Washington characterizes as an innocent passage. Chinese actions indicate Beijing believes it has the right to set regulations over the South China Sea, owns the resources in and under the sea, and is entitled to exclude foreign military vessels and aircraft.
China’s success stems largely from three features of its South China Sea policy.
The first is leverage. To achieve its political objectives, Beijing exploits imbalances where China is larger, stronger or weightier than opponents. China harnesses its industrial might, particularly its shipbuilding capacity, to dispatch into the South China Sea larger numbers of military and coast guard vessels and aircraft than the other claimants can match. Moreover, Beijing regularly calls on its civilian fishing fleet, the largest in the South China Sea, to fulfill missions in support of national strategic goals. Beijing’s position that negotiations to settle the South China Sea dispute must be bilateral--i.e., between China and each one of the other claimants separately—is based on China’s superior leverage. China is much larger and more powerful than any of its rival claimants, which would give China an advantage in each of these negotiations. Beijing strongly opposes any suggestion of multilateral talks, which would allow for the possibility of two or more other governments coordinating their positions to offset China’s heft.
The dependence of regional countries on Chinese trade and investment puts Beijing in a position to dictate compliance. Chinese influence is apparent in Cambodia’s moves to block criticism of China’s South China Sea activities. Beijing carried out economic coercion against the Philippines before Duterte demonstrated a willingness to trade away his ability to defend his country’s territorial claims in order to gain additional Chinese economic assistance. Although Vietnam has been the feistiest of China’s rival claimants, its own heavy economic dependence on China creates a conflicting interest.
A second feature contributing to China’s success is false assurance. Even as its operatives have engaged in hooliganism in the South China Sea, the Chinese government has consistently presented a façade of commitment to peace, harmony and moral principle. At the general level, Beijing has always claimed that CCP-led China is a uniquely peace-loving, non-aggressive and non-bullying country, even as a great power. More specific to this case, Beijing has appeared supportive of calming tensions, signing the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) in 2002, and participating in discussions about a possible Code of Conduct (CoC) among the claimants.
This posturing serves to obfuscate China’s intentions and to create unfounded optimism among foreigners that apparent instances of aggressive Chinese behavior are anomalies, are strictly limited to particular circumstances, or are carried out by rogue actors not authorized by Beijing. Seeing the issue this way increases the disagreement among regional governments over how to deal with China, creating openings for Beijing to divide and conquer.
The more compelling alternative explanation, however, has two parts. First, Beijing has an obvious interest in shrouding its actions in a cloud of benevolence so as to limit security cooperation against China among other countries that feel threatened. Second, due to both traditional Chinese political culture and its own determination to rule in perpetuity, the CCP regime feels compelled to maintain the image of righteous and mistake-free leadership to uphold its domestic legitimacy. This leads to the Chinese government’s insistence that the world has nothing to fear from Chinese foreign policy—even as the CCP’s domestic insecurity drives Beijing to take nationalistic positions that increase tensions with other countries.
Thus, the assurances Beijing offers are ultimately unsubstantial. The DoC includes commitments not to “inhabit presently uninhabited” features and not to engage in “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes,” which China obviously flouted when it piled sand onto reefs to build military bases covering over three thousand acres of reclaimed land. Meanwhile, negotiations over a CoC have dragged on for twenty-four years, and Beijing has opposed wording that would invalidate Chinese claims while promoting a provision that would restrict U.S. military operations in the South China Sea.
Chinese vessels have also egregiously violated universally-accepted standards of safe and professional conduct such as are contained in the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. Typically Chinese officials have denied any wrongdoing in the South China Sea even when confronted with contrary facts, such as when Chinese personnel cut the cables of non-Chinese survey vessels in 2011.
A third feature contributing to China’s success is modulated aggressiveness. China persistently pushes forward its interests in the South China Sea to the detriment of other countries’ interests. But Beijing has carefully chosen the amounts, places, times and methods of pressure so as to minimize the consequent backlash. The Chinese government correctly assessed that the United States would not go to war with China to stop the construction of military bases on reclaimed land. Vietnam is the South China Sea claimant that has suffered the most from violent Chinese attacks. The country has no cooperative security agreement with the United States. Beijing chose the height of the pandemic in April 2020 as the time to declare what the Chinese media called the “major administrative move” of declaring two new “districts” in the South China Sea, including one over the “Zhongsha islands,” which is actually a sunken atoll under nine to eighteen meters of water.
The Chinese government has three levels of physical force to call upon to implement policy in the South China Sea: PLA Navy ships, Chinese Coast Guard (Haijing) vessels, and deputized civilian fishing boats. Generally the Chinese will use the lowest level that is sufficient to accomplish the mission to reduce the appearance of bullying. In recent months, for example, scores of Chinese fishing boats, not engaging in fishing and with their transponders turned off, have surrounded Philippine-occupied Thitu / Pag-Asa Island in an apparent attempt to intimidate Manila to withdraw.
The now-common Chinese tactic of ramming is far less provocative than gunfire, but often as effective in winning sea battles. Chinese vessels have repeatedly used the threat of collision to drive away even U.S. Navy ships.
The Chinese use of lasers to harass other countries’ aircraft is a newer manifestation of the same pattern. Lasers are a problem for aircraft but not directly lethal. The Chinese government’s current policy is employ-and-deny. After the US Navy said a Chinese destroyer had fired a laser at P-8 in February 2020 over international waters in the Philippine Sea, the Chinese Ministry of Defense said this was a “baseless accusation.” A few days later the CCP-owned Global Times carried an article in which “Chinese military experts” advocated the use of lasers to “expel” U.S. warships from “intruding into the South China Sea.”