Turning the tide in the South China Sea
By China’s standards, 2015 was a year of success in the festering South China Sea debate
China’s activities in the South China Sea have created a new status quo in the region, writes Yun Sun.
It was an eventful year for the South China Sea in 2015. Regardless of how outside observers might judge China’s land reclamation in the area, from a Chinese perspective the campaign achieved its goals: China has asserted its newly-enlarged presence in the disputed area; strengthened its de facto control; and created new boundaries, factual or symbolic, for United States military activities in the region.
This does not mean that other countries’ freedom of navigation, especially by American naval vessels, is fundamentally revoked or violated. However, in reality, China’s strong opposition to such voyages and their potential impact on bilateral relations will inevitably affect the scope and frequency of such activities.
This is perhaps the single largest strategic achievement of the land reclamation: China still holds a profound grudge over American military reconnaissance and surveillance in the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which resulted in the humiliating Hainan Island EP-3 incident back in 2001. Now with the artificial islands, some Chinese strategic thinkers believe that China has, at a minimum, driven some US military activities further away from the Chinese homeland.
The pledge by President Xi Jinping on no militarisation will probably disappoint observers and countries in the region in the coming months, because China’s definition of militarisation is categorically different from “no military presence” in the South China Sea. In the Chinese policy lexicon, Chinese military presence does not equal “militarisation”.
Instead, according to the Chinese ambassador to the US and its Foreign Ministry, the presence is “normal deployment for defensive purposes” and national defense “is not militarisation”. However, when the USS Lassen entered the twelve nautical miles surrounding the artificial islands, China turned the tables and pointed the finger at the US for its “provocation” and for “pushing the militarisation of the South China Sea”. Following this logic, China will label any major military deployment on these islands as a reaction to the US activity and blame the US for further escalation.
China has been prepared to use the military deployment on these artificial islands as a bargaining chip to negotiate with the US for a tacit understanding on its activities in the region. Some Chinese analysts have pointed out that if the US insists on sailing through the twelve nautical miles surrounding the artificial islands, China would have no option but to deploy offensive weapons against them. By building something out of nothing, China has harvested many things.
There are downsides for China as well, but nothing beyond its control. China’s image has been negatively impacted from its actions in the South China Sea, but those criticisms and concerns have not stopped the countries of Southeast Asia from jumping on China’s economic bandwagon to benefit from initiatives such as One Belt, One Road. Some might argue that through its South China Sea policy, China has forced Southeast Asia to turn to other powers to balance China’s power. But from Beijing’s perspective, Southeast Asia will always seek a balancing diplomacy, with or without issues in the South China Sea. Furthermore, since the US is so distracted with its domestic politics and competing foreign policy agendas (and will largely remain so in 2016), there is no substantive reason for China to worry about any major surge of US involvement or actions on South China Sea in the foreseeable future.
The only meaningful annoyance for China might be Manila’s case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In November, the UN tribunal declared that it will rule on the case and most observers speculate that the ruling will be against Chinese claims. Despite the Chinese-stated rejection of any such ruling, the diplomatic and legal pressure in the international community will be mounting.
However, in reality, such a hurdle is unlikely to result in any material change to the new status quo China has established in the South China Sea. China will look bad, but the cost will not be sufficient to change its behaviour.
On the South China Sea issue, the regional players’ natural instincts are to turn to the US for Washington to do justice. In an ideal world, the US would uphold the international law and confront China’s unilateral assertiveness. Yet in the real world, the story is far from such simplicity. The US does have the capability to counter China in the South China Sea – not even the Chinese hold the illusion that US does not. What the US lacks, however, is the willingness to use it for political, economic and strategic calculations. As the region, even the rest of the world, wait to hear a clear answer from US on its grand strategy toward China, China is likely to continue to prevail in the festering South China Sea dispute.
This article was originally published in Asia and the Pacific Policy Society, January 8th, 2016