South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage

May 9, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaSouth China SeaHistoryDefenseNaval Power

South China Sea: How We Got to This Stage

Understanding the source of the tension

The US’s military deployment in the South China Sea has further flared up tensions in the region, giving the disputes in the South China Sea larger than real role on the international strategic chessboard. The apparent China-US rivalry is seemingly taking over other disputes in the region and starts to occupy center stage. Looking back at the post-Cold War era, we can see that nearly all the contentions and conflicts involved or even engineered by the US, some with complications lingering till today. The Chinese are thus prompted to ask a question: what is the US playing at in the South China Sea this time?



It can be seen from the above narrative, the situation in the South China Sea came to the state of where we are today is the result of the entangling effect of the actions and reactions along multiple lines. There is also the influence of the changes in the international and regional security environment. The elements that pushed the spiraling twists and turns include not only sovereignty, resources and strategic security considerations, but also tangible interests. There is also the problem of information dis-link and historical and institutional memory loss. Moreover, the guessing game about each other’s strategic intentions and policy objectives is also playing a role. The US as a power from outside the region has played a major role by coming into the issue and adjusting its policies towards the region since 2009. So now, what’s next, what will happen in the South China Sea? The US is trying to find out what China’s next move will be. On the part of China, suspicion is rising about the US’s intention. Obviously, there is a risk of escalation of tension and danger of miscalculations at strategic level.

China’s pursuit in the South China Sea has been consistently maintained. That is to safeguard national territorial integrity and maintain regional peace and tranquility. To observe China, one should never lose sight of the historical dimension. Though China is growing into a strong country, the painful memory of history is not long gone. The Chinese people have not forgotten that the country stumbled into the 20th century with its capital under the occupation of the imperialists’ armies, and for over a century before and after, China suffered the humiliation of foreign invasion and aggression. That is why the Chinese people and government are very sensitive about anything that is related to territorial integrity and would never allow such recurrence even if it’s just an inch of land. This is something the outside world needs to keep in mind when looking at China and trying to understand China’s behavior. Admittedly, there is no major external threat that can endanger China’s survival or development in today’s world. China adheres to the path of peaceful development and it dedicates to promoting world peace, development and cooperation. Its belief and commitment are firm and unchanged.

In his speech at the Opening Ceremony of the Fifth Meeting of the CICA Ministers of Foreign Affairs on April 28 2016, the Chinese President Xi Jinping stated: Let me stress that China is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. We firmly stand by our sovereignty and rights and interests in the South China Sea, and remain committed to resolving disputes peacefully through friendly consultation and negotiation with countries directly concerned.[xxii] From the consultations the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held in recent months with his counterpart among ASEAN countries, one could also see that China’s proposition of “dual-track” approach, meaning disputes be resolved peacefully through negotiation between the parties directly concerned and China ASEAN countries work together to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, have been well received and supported. ASEAN start to realize the importance of keeping the situation under control and return to the track of dialogue.

So, to be specific, China’s policy objectives in the South China Sea could be read through following angles.

First, China’s fundamental policy objective for the South China Sea is to protect the security of its sovereignty and maritime rights. Tactically, China has been coping with all motions by refraining from proactive motions, which means to act with restraint, and to take countermeasures when provoked. The Chinese people will not allow any further infringement of the country’s sovereignty and rights concerning land features in the South China Sea, and therefore hold high expectations towards the government to protect its national interests. As for the current status quo of some of the Nansha islands and reefs under other countries’ occupation, China will not give up its sovereignty stance. However, considering that China has significantly increased its capacity to control the situation and to prevent any further loss, it is highly advisable that as long as no new major threat looms large, China should continue to uphold the policy of “shelving the disputes and seeking joint development”, and to take in store the reality in the field. The outcome of the arbitration initiated by the Philippines should not shake China’s fundamental policy lines.

Second, China’s policy on the South China Sea also concerns the freedom and safety of navigation. Being an international pathway of strategic importance, the South China Sea has the busiest commercial shipping routes, allowing 40 percent of the world’s ocean freight to pass through. The freedom and safety of navigation in the area are indispensable to all major economies, China included. As the biggest benefactor of the pathway, China relies on those routes for 70 to 80 percent of its trade and energy supplies. The pathway also serves as an important passage for the Chinese navy to sail to the wider sea.        

Third, the common denominator of China and its neighbors in the South China Sea is regional peace and stability. China does not have an agenda or motive to seek hegemony in the region. The very reason that China exercises restraint and keep the disputes and differences under control is exactly for the sake of maintaining peace in the general environment. In this regard, China should continue to make efforts in the following aspects: to provide and share more information with others for better understanding; to offer more public goods for the well-being and safety of all; to complete the “code of conduct” with ASEAN members for a rule based regional order. From a long-term perspective, as the biggest coastal country in the South China Sea, China should keep the ability not only to defend itself but also to maintain peace in the South China Sea, and to gain a good position for seeking a negotiated settlement.

Fourth, China and the US share common strategic interests in maintaining the freedom and safety of navigation, and promoting stability and prosperity in the South China Sea area. China and the US and are not disputing parties to each other. Therefore, the two countries should avoid the trap of security dilemma and misunderstandings by engaging in dialogues and clarifying each other’s intentions. China and the US need and should be able to work towards cooperation. As China is growing into a maritime power, the wider seas and oceans in the world are increasingly important to its development as well as its global cooperation. China’s vision will surely go beyond the South China Sea. Therefore, any speculations on its intentions based on conventional land power mentalities may not be accurate.

The future direction of trend would very much depend on the perceptions and choices of the parties involved. If they choose to cooperate, they may all win. If they choose to confront each other, they may only head for impasse or even conflict and no one can benefit totally.

Ms FU Ying is Chairperson of Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress; Chairperson of Academic Committee of China’s Institute of International Strategy, CASS; and Specially Invited Vice Chairperson of China Center for International Economic Exchanges. Mr. WU Shicun is Ph.D Senior Research fellow and President of the National Institute of the South China Sea Studies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

[i] China’s discovery of the Nansha Islands dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D). During the Tang and Song dynasties (7th-13th century), China’s knowledge and development of the islands increased substantially. The Ming dynasty (1368-1644) exercised jurisdiction over the islands, and since then, China’s official maps have included the Nansha Islands.

[ii]In 1939, Japan circled out a heptagon area (at 7°-12°N; 1111°36'-117°30' E) in the Nansha Islands and the surrounding waters, which included Taiping Island, Nanzi Island and Beizi Island, collectively known as “the Xinnan Islands”. They then were under the jurisdiction of Kaohsiung City, and of the Office of the Governor-General.

[iii] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China and the Party Documents Research Office of the CPC Central Committee, Zhou Enlai on Diplomacy, Central Party Literature Press, 1990. pp. 38-46.

[iv] Xinhua news release, “The People’s Republic of China Government Solemnly Declares Chinese Sovereignty over the Nansha Islands Inviolable”, People’s Daily, May 30, 1956, front page.