Calculated ambiguity in the South China Sea
By Peter J Brown
Just as a group of experts arrived in Hanoi last month for a first-ever
workshop involving nations with overlapping territorial claims in the South
China Sea (SCS), China's largest fisheries administration vessel, the Yuzheng
311, dropped anchor at Yongxing Island, one of what Beijing refers to
as the Xisha Islands. It was the beginning of another long Chinese patrol of
the South China Sea launched from the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island.
Where China claims to many places in the South China Sea, such as the Nansha,
Xisha and Zongsha islands, other claimants - including Vietnam, Malaysia,
Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines - have competing claims to
island groups and individual islands. They are referred to variously as the
Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoals and Macclesfield Bank, to name but a few.
Evidence of China's growing reach in the South China Sea can be found at
obscure map points such as Woody Island in the Paracels, where China is
steadily expanding and improving an airstrip, as well as the remote Mischief
Reef - roughly 150 miles west of the Philippines - where China has erected
various structures. China's neighbors view the process as expansionist and even
hostile, despite the joint signing of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of
Parties in the South China Sea.
According to some security experts, China's end goal is not merely the creation
of a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ), extending by some renderings as far
south as the Indonesia-claimed gas rich Natuna Islands. They say China seeks
control over the the sea as part of a plan to establish more maritime power
projection, including through a fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines
(SSBNs), in sea lanes extending beyond the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The
South China Sea is the second busiest sea lane in the world and serves as
China's gateway for imports of oil from the Persian Gulf and natural resources
"China's first carrier battle groups will be based on Hainan Island, and they
will patrol these resource routes. For China's political leadership, control of
the SCS is a critical objective toward ensuring the economic and political
survival of the Communist Party dictatorship," said Richard Fisher, senior
fellow at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.
However, he says, the US, Japan, Australia and several Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) are still standing in China's way.
"[China wants] to make it into a heavily protected territorial zone for the
operation of SSBNs until such a time as Taiwan comes to provide a better base
for SSBN operations," said Fisher. "China may base up to half of its nuclear
missiles on SSBNs, meaning that China will only settle for dictating future
regimes for the SCS."
Beefing up China's offshore presence means that its State Oceanic
Administration (SOA) and China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) will ensure that
fishermen and survey vessels plying the South China Sea from other regional
countries have more and more encounters with larger and better equipped Chinese
vessels from the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), including the Yuzheng 311.
A March 16 incident showed Beijing's growing willingness to order non-PLAN
ships, including from the SOA and CMS fleets, to carry out enforcement
activities in the Spratly Islands - to the chagrin of neighbors, particularly
the Philippines. After US spy ship the USNS Impeccable was harassed by
Chinese vessels on March 8, the Chinese dispatched what it claimed was a
fishery patrol boat - not a warship - to safeguard its interests in the South
"China would dearly like to turn its assumption of control over the SCS into a
non-confrontational police exercise in which Vietnam, the Philippines and
others basically do nothing," said Fisher. "Giving non-PLAN agencies larger
ships and greater firepower may be an attempt at benign militarization, but it
will be destabilizing just the same."
Competing claims in the South China Sea have frequently flared into showdowns,
including a clash between Chinese and Vietnamese naval vessels in 1988 at
Johnson Reef in the Spratly Islands. Last month's joint session in Hanoi,
co-sponsored by the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and the Vietnam Lawyers'
Association, resulted in promises to start multilateral dialogue on the many
unresolved and overlapping claims in the area.
"Although in the past, China has insisted on bilateral solutions, no progress
has been made because most disputes require concessions by multiple claimants.
The goal for this session was likely to build confidence by holding
preliminary, non-binding track two discussions and it was a good sign that
Chinese scholars attended the conference because it may reflect some measure of
acceptance on the part of the Chinese to a multilateral approach to untangling
the disputes," said Associate Professor Peter Dutton at the US Naval War
College's China Maritime Studies Institute.
According to one of the attendees, Carlyle Thayer, professor of politics at the
University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, there
were no national delegations and the Chinese representatives who attended
hailed only from various universities and think tanks. "The meeting was termed
a workshop, and not a conference, to water down any impression that a set of
conclusions by way of a resolution or statement would be issued," said Thayer.
The event succeeded in raising the profile of regional concerns about
development in the reputedly oil and gas rich South China Sea that
"participants characterized as deteriorating or had the potential to
deteriorate," said Thayer. "A consensus emerged that a long-standing proposal
for joint development should be revived for consideration by claimant states."
Perhaps more importantly, Thayer said that besides the fact that, "there was no
one China position," the so-called "nine-dotted line map" was described by one
of the Chinese "as currently under discussion". In 1947, the nationalist
Chinese government put forward claims to the South China Sea in a map
containing 11 dotted lines.
This map was adopted by the Chinese communists when they took power and later
premier Chou Enlai deleted two lines in the Gulf of Tonkin to make the 11 dots
into nine. Unofficial maps containing the nine dotted lines have long been in
circulation. Regional officials have been unable to get China to indicate how
the lines would be connected and how much of the area China is claiming,
according to Thayer.
"Chinese scholars made clear that an official map of the SCS containing nine
dotted lines represented the maximum extent of historical claims to the area.
Chinese specialists noted that this left open areas for discussion," said
Thayer. "For example, one Chinese proposed that if nations which made claims
for extended continental shelves withdrew such claims, there would be several
areas within the dotted line might be amenable to joint development."
This proposal is tied to the submission of claims for extended continental
shelves by Vietnam and Malaysia earlier this year under a United Nations
imposed timetable. Both countries submitted a joint claim to areas in the
south, while Vietnam lodged separate claims for an extended continental shelf
in the north.
"China lodged a protest and tabled a map with nine dotted lines to indicate the
area it said was Chinese territory. This appears to have been the first time
the Chinese government has tabled this map," said Thayer. "China is
deliberately pursuing a policy of calculated ambiguity in this matter. It is
putting off any settlement of conflicting maritime sovereignty claims until the
moment suits Beijing."
There is already talk of a second South China Sea workshop in Hanoi in
mid-2010. Dutton has identified a number of possible agenda items. "One
positive step would be to hold a multilateral, regional forum to discuss the
range of possible multilateral projects which could be undertaken to research
the extent of hydrocarbon deposits under the SCS seabed," said Dutton.
"Another positive step could include development of a multilateral management
framework for living resources, including a regional body to regulate
sustainable fishing by all claimants under a treaty regime that allocates a
total allowable catch among the various parties. Such steps would resolve some
of the less difficult challenges, while postponing more difficult questions of
sovereignty," he said.
Dutton noted that a debate within China persists as to the exact nature of its
claims to sovereignty and coastal state jurisdiction in the South China Sea.
Among other things, China probably prefers a political solution here, rather
than a solution that applies a legal framework that might prejudice its other
claims, he said.
"Chinese domestic law claims sovereignty over all of the islands in the SCS and
also claims territorial seas and EEZs emanating from all of its claimed
territories. However, it may benefit the Chinese to remain somewhat ambiguous
as to the exact nature of the Chinese SCS legal claims," said Dutton.
"It is critical that settlement of Chinese claims in the SCS does not apply a
legal approach that might prejudice its claims against Japan in the East China
Sea. Thus, from China's perspective, a legal framework for resolution of SCS
disputes must be developed that does not compromise its East China Sea claims."
With or without a legal framework, Thayer believes China seeks to divide
regional states and strike bilateral deals.
"China has recently told the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations
that they should get their act together first before approaching China for
discussions on the SCS. Some ASEAN states point out that getting consensus
among the ASEAN 10 states would be difficult and that a unified bloc would only
create friction in dealing with China," said Thayer.
The recent workshop in Hanoi will be followed on December 16 by another round
of talks on the South China Sea, the next round of the so-called Military
Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) discussions involving delegations from
China and the US. The meeting will be held at the Asia-Pacific Center for
Security Studies in Honolulu, Hawaii.
"The Vietnam conference was essentially a Track 2 discussion of issues, whereas
the MMCA is a Track 1 military-to-military dialogue," said Dutton. "The Vietnam
Conference will have no impact on MMCA, as the issues are fundamentally
different. The attendees at the Vietnam Conference were discussing national
sovereignty and jurisdiction issues, whereas the MMCA discussions focus on
freedoms of navigation and other military uses of the waters of the seas off
Thayer notes that the US Embassy in Hanoi did not send diplomatic observers to
the workshop, thus distancing the US from sovereignty and territorial disputes
in the South China Sea. "The next session of the MMCA may dampen maritime
confrontation, such as the incident involving the USNS Impeccable. But a
negotiated 'Incident at Sea Agreement' is likely to take a year or more before
it is signed," said Thayer.
Thayer pointed to the visit to the US in October by General Xu Caihou, vice
chairman of China's Central Military Commission. (See
Chinese general on a long march, Asia Times, November 3, 2009.) General
Xu identified the four obstacles to a healthy and stable US-China military
relationship as starting with Taiwan, and he called upon the US to cease its
intrusion via military aircraft and ships' intrusions into China's maritime
"China's main objective is to get the US to scale down, if not cease, its
surveillance activities off China's coast and the naval base on Hainan Island
particularly," said Thayer.
Besides General Xu's demands, Fisher points to a recently retired PLA general
who publicly called for China to greatly increase its military force
deployments in the South China Sea and to build an airbase on Mischief Reef in
the Spratly Islands.
"In addition to being only about 200 miles from the Philippine island of
Palawan , it would extend PLA control over the Palawan Straits, a vital
commercial sea lane for Japan , South Korea and Taiwan ," said Fisher who
recently wrote an article about this issue. "An airbase on Mischief Reef would
create a security challenge of a very high order which Washington could not
Taiwan's islands in the South China Sea make matters even more complicated.
"There are also smaller islands closer to Hainan occupied by Taiwan. Beijing
could use a number of excuses, from threatening military activity aimed at
nuclear assets on Hainan, to a desire to create political instability in Taiwan
as cause to take them over," said Fisher.
"Due to its decade-long investment in amphibious assault forces, the PLA could
take these islands with ease. But having long ago chosen to concede to
Beijing's 'One China' policies, it is highly unlikely that any Asian state
would respond in a manner that defends their larger interests."
The South China Sea and even Taiwan are of less strategic importance to the US
than they were during the Cold War-era. But China should not take this
increasingly "disinterested" stance for granted. US strategy could shift with
an up-tick in Chinese military activity in the region. And it is too early to
tell if the meeting in Hanoi represents an important new chapter in China's
dealings with its neighbors in particular.
"A continuation of US neutrality will only serve to hasten the day in which
China becomes the region's anti-democratic hegemon with an ability to apply
vast economic and military pressures to force regional conformity with its
desires," said Fisher.
Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine.