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Xue Li and Xu Yanzhuo: China should Speed up the Adjustmemt of the SCS 

(2015-06-09 02:20:37)






分类: 南海研究与评论

 For the published version on The Diplomat on June 8,2015, please visit:




China should accelerate the adjustment of South China Sea policy


Xue   Li     Xu Yanzhuo


It is known for SCS commentators that the second and third quarters each year are peak period of SCS disputes due to climate and political environment. Yet this year, external powers, such as India, US and Japan have actively involved in this area, while the claimants remain relatively calm. China’s land reclamation has been targeted by some of those SCS players.

Does it imply that SCS issue has entered a new period featured by“the insiders stay calm, while the outsiders didn’t”? Or in other words, changed from “the disputes between China and the claimants” to “therivalry between China and great powers including US, Japan and India”? China’s land reclamation in this region stokes more and more external powers’ concerns.Will it fuel the possibility of US-China military conflicts in this water? And more importantly will it contradict with OBOR strategy?

In order to figure out the answers, it is necessary to start frombehavioral pattern of South China Sea stakeholders.


The behavioral pattern of key players in SCS is changing


Generally, China used to emphasizethe development of trade and economic relations while to be reactive to the incidents happened in SCS during its interactions with Southeast Asian claimants. However, in the last two years, Beijing has become proactive and counterattacked in an aggressive way, as it holds that time will on its side.


Nowadays, China has reclaimed scale oflands for buildings, airstrip and portin Spratly Islands, which raised concerns from ASEAN claimants. Yet, what China has done so far is what Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia did in the past, just in a larger scale and more rapid way. Even if Beijing remains a low-profile in this water and does not actually harm their interests, it still stokes fear of China’s counterattacks against these countries. Additionally, China has strengthened its cooperation with ASEAN, for instance, the political and economic relations with Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia; at the same time, it has showed flexibility in drafting COC in South China Sea. Thus, the ASEAN countries have limited measures than increasingly depending on external powers in security aspect and they would like these powers to speak up for them.


On the other side, external powers have their own agenda towards a rising China. US specialists usually would suggest that Asia-Pacific rebalance strategydoesn’t necessarily served as containing China, instead , it is a hedging strategy designed to balance the regional power in SCS and to continue US’s role as a“off-shore balancer”. This strategy has a dual function of both engaging and hedging. US’s approach of “keeping engagement while strengthening hedge” has become consensus of US, Europe, Japan, even India, Australia, Canada and Korea. The middle powers have conducted in a veiled and indirect way.


Against such background, it brought a phenomenon that “the ASEAN claimants stay behind the scene while external powers stand on the stage”. In January, during President Obama’s visit to India, the two governments signed US-India Joint Statement, in which it emphasize, “ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea….” and “…pursue(ing) resolution of their territorial and maritime disputes through all peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”. In April, Japan gets boosts as G7 addressed statement on South China Sea tensions, by saying “we are deeply concerned by tensions in the East and South China Sea. We oppose any unilateral attempt by any party to assert its territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force”. Meanwhile, Japanese government said it would consider expanding its air and naval patrols over South China Sea. In addition, US is the most active external player in this area. Apart from the US-India Joint Statement, Carter, Secretary of Defense,also has addressed US’s stands on SCS, together with some activities during his Asia tour in March. Heexpressed support of peaceful resolution on SCS disputes in Manila, yet pledged to increase military support and assistance to Philippineand to train Philippines soldiersat the same time. In April, the two governments held a joint military exercises involving a larger than usual number of US and Philippines troops; In addition, Carter implicitly accused the Chinese of militarizing SCS issue in South Korea on the one hand, while said US would dispatch some of its most sophisticated weapons systems to Asia on the other hand; Meanwhile, he warned against militarization of territorial rows in Asia during his visits to Japan, however, the Japanese and US governments have considered joint patrols and surveillance in this water.Moreover, President Obama also accused China of "flexing its muscles" to advance its maritime claims against Asian neighbors in April.


As a result, it could conclude that SCS disputes have been complicated by the factor of “the balance between China and external powers, including US, Japan and India”. It also should be noted thatexternal players would not replace internal factor thatrefers to“the territorial disputes between China and the claimants”. On the one hand, Chinese government strongly opposes external involvement in this dispute. On the other hand, the ASEAN claimants have a dual attitude towards external powers’involvement as well, to be specific, expecting and preventing. For example, some of the Malacca Strait nations have strongly opposed US’s air and naval patrolling the strait for pirate attacks. It could say the claimants would not depend on China for its security, nor irritate Beijing.


The Balance of big powers in SCS has complicated the situation, yet stabilized this region


External powers’involvement has complicated the disputes in SCS, however, it has a positive impact at the same time. The balance among big powers requires sophisticated consideration, which means all of the players are very cautious about the conflicts and would strengthen their crisis management. From this perspective, the situation in SCS is relatively stable. 


US’s national interests in SCS could be summarized as threefold aspects, peace and stability; freedom of commercialnavigation; and military activities in exclusive economic zones (especially intelligence gathering). The first one has moral high ground for US’s hegemony, where no country would oppose it. And the second one is a shared interest for all SCS countries that needs US’s hegemony. While the third one is an extra requirement for hegemony power which is accepted by some of the big powers in this water. 


As for Japan, its national interests in SCS include, freedom of commercial navigation; its political clouts in Southeast Asia; and allies in East China Sea disputes. Since bypassing SCS has increased very limited cost for Japan and the Japanese government has made a very detailed proposal and plan for the increased time and shipment consumption, the claim “SCS shipping lanes are irreplaceable” isa politicalgimmick. Conducting Fukuda Doctrine and a series of measures for decades, Japanese government has successfully smoothed the historical grievance of Southeast Asian people(It also should be noting that Southeast Asian people’s memory of Japanesearmy is not as sorrow and destructive as Northeast Asians’) and create a “prosperous, peaceful and civilized” national image. Along with China’s rising and the rapid development of India and Southeast Asia countries, Japan has sought for new way to keep its influence in Asia, while SCS issue provides a political opportunity. Additionally, the Japanese government is looking for allies on East Asia Sea, although ASEAN has very limited impact on this dispute.


India’s national interests in SCS are freedom of commercial navigation; increasing impact in Asia and balancing China’s political clouts in Indian Ocean Rim region. India has increasing trade passing through the strait and actively involved into oil exploration in this area, thus, the peace and stability in this water is a major concern for India’s policy makers. In order to take advantage of East Asia’s dramatic economic growth, Indian’s foreign policy has evolved from “Look East” to “Act East”. What’s more, India has anambition of becoming an“impressive power”. As a result, the government has sought to “play a proper role in accordance with its strength” on SCS issue, and the strategy also balanced China’s expandinginfluenceamong north Indian Ocean countries.


Along with the rapid increasing naval power, Beijing has transformed its attitude towards military activities in exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Currently, China has expanded its naval presence in EEZs around Australia, Guam and Hawaii. In the future, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of presence in EEZs around US naval base (such as San Diego and Newport). On the other side, US only has 3 nautical miles territorial water, before it has accepted the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles. After the World War II, Russia hasretained the stands of the Soviet Union. Yet constrained by its naval and air power, the government has declined its approaching detection with a slightly increase in these years.


Currently, the situation is SCS could be concluded as,Japan and India play a limited role in the disputes, while US and China shared similar stands in its nature. The difference lays on some technical issues, such asthe frequency of approaching detection. Philippines’s interests in SCS is not very important to US, since Washington doesn’t recognize Philippine’s territorial claim over Kalayaan Islands (the island is part of Spratly Islands). The balance between great powers is restricted by so many factors that the chance of conflicts are largely reduced, plus the fact that China has transformed its SCS strategy and policy guided by OBOR agenda, the conflicts are more unlikely to happen in this region. 


China should accelerate the adjustment of South China Sea policy


Against the background of a transforming and rebalancing period between great powers, Beijing is necessary to further clarify its South China Sea policy which is also key for OBOR strategy to be trusted and promoted by peripheral countries.


Beijing has long held the strategy of “It is not the right time for a proper resolution, and the time will be on its side”. To be specific, it introduced the policy of “shelvingdifferences and seeking joint development”. However, in practice, it conducted “shelving differences” rather than “joint development”. At the moment, more and more evidences prove “time will not be necessary on China’s side”. As it could see inHD-981 incidence that China is unable to occupy several reefs at the same time like what has happened in 1988.


Furthermore, what kind of role does SCS issue play in China’s national interest, as core interests as Taiwan and Xinjiang issue or key but less significant than the former two issues? What kind of status does SCS dispute enjoy in China-ASEAN relations, overridingother issues or being part of the relationship? What’s more, when Beijing’s claim on SCS dispute is not compatible with the overall OBOR strategy, should it avoid the problem or adjust SCS policy? If it is necessary to adjust the policy, what is the proper measure, time and extent? As for these questions, this paper holds that SCS, as part of China-ASEAN relations, serves a less significant status than Taiwan and Xinjiang issue. In the implementation of OBOR strategy, it is unlikely to avoid this dispute; hence, it is necessary for Beijing to adjust its SCS policy as it has done at the moment.


China has opposed to internationalize SCS dispute, as it only complicates the situation, instead of solving the problem. As a result, it is practical to control the dispute in a limited range rather than expanding it to a global level. In August 2009,Senior Officials’ Meeting on the COC was convened in Suzhou. In August 2014, Wang Yi has put forward dual-track approach and in November, Li Keqiang re-emphasized the dual-track approach and pledged that China would push for the implementation of a code of conduct for the South China Sea. In April 2015, China and Vietnam have issued a joint communiqué which agreed to “soon create a “Code of Conduct of Parties in the East Sea” (COC) on the basis of consultation and consensus”. All these evidences have sent a message that ASEAN could play an important role in South China Sea and the multilateral framework could be considered in some disputed water. At the same time, it could accelerate the creation of COC without external powers’ direct involvement, since it is also the stands shared by some ASEAN countries.


Thirdly, how to understand China’slarge scale land reclamation and construction in the Spratly Islands, since ostensiblyit seems to intensify the existing conflicts. Commenters have given various answers. This paper holds that it is neither possible nor reasonable for China to give the territorial claim of Nine-Dashed Line and the Spratly Islands. It is pragmatic to strengthen the presence in this region for further negotiation and joint development. After years of experiences, the claimants of ASEAN were unable to jointly explore oil and other resources in SCS area. Thus, China, without a presence in SCS, could hardly promote the resolution of SCS dispute, no matter jointly developing the energy reserves or not (such as jointly establishing Marine Park), or promoting multilateral development through unilateral exploration. 


Clarification of China’s policy could reduce the suspicionfrom neighboring countries


Since China has adjusted its overall strategy in SCS, it is necessary to clarify the policy in details and to accelerate the policy adjustment.


Generally, vague policy serves as a protection for weak powers to flexibly change its status and strategic agenda. China’s ambiguous policy on military power, especially nuclear deterrent capability to US, is a reflection of this tendency. Vice versa, a clarification policy is designed by great power to show its confidence and friendliness to its allies and partners. From US’s containment policy during the Cold War to its hedging strategy targeted at China, Washington has explicitlydeclared its strategy and fully implemented. Recently, it has put forward US Army’s Pacific Pathways and proclaimed that it would launch the initiativethrough including 12 countries in Asia Pacific with 29 joint military exercises in the next five years.


Small countries are often very cautious of big ones, thus they would pursue their security from external powers; unless the big neighborcould ensure that it wouldn’t challenge their security. As a result, China’s vague policy on SCS would increase the concerns and cautions from ASEAN claimants, and even push them to seek for external security dependence. Since China has declared its agenda through OBOR strategy and the “community of shared destiny”initiative, it required Beijing to implement these pledges, especially in security aspects. Chinese government should send a message to ASEAN claimants that China could benefit these countries in economic aspect on the one hand, while on the other hand it would not harm their national security and it is not necessary for them to seek for external support. 


Since the construction in Spratly Islandshas providedChina a foothold that compatible with its strength, it is not necessary for Beijing to keep a vague policy, instead, it laid a foundation for China to promote a transparent, pragmatic and reasonable solution for SCS disputes.  


Additionally, it is worth noting that strategic vagueness is not compatible with OBOR strategy. SCS issue has great significance to ASEAN’s regional security. Without fully resolving this dispute, China-ASEAN relationship would be limited in economic aspect rather than security and political level, not to say “community of shared destiny”. An action plan on the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative has been issued by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce, with State Council authorization.In this plan, it emphasized that “China will follow the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefit” and will “help countries align their development strategies”. These pledges reflect that OBOR is an opportunity rather than threat to countries along the routes, although it should admit that economy and security have different meanings to these countries, especially when it comes to territorial and maritime disputes.


What’s more, if we view the issue from political psychology perspective, the decision makers may think, why should I adjust SCS strategy and policy in my administration? Would it be better to leave it to the next generation? This paper holds that at the early stage of implementing OBOR initiative, adjusting SCS strategy and clarifying the policy is the least bad choice for Beijing and barely acceptable for ASEAN and external players.Since there is not much time left for “tomorrow upon tomorrow”, it at least could become decisive and try to turn “thorns” (problems) into “orchard” (pleasure).


Finally, there are two points that need to be paid attention to. First, the statement of ASEAN summit has expressed “gravely concerns” over China’s reclamation in Spratly Islands, which is the second time that ASEAN has made statement on SCS issues, following ASEAN’s foreign minister’s after HD 981 incident. Even if the statement has enjoyed a higher level than the first one, it implies that ASEAN claimants tend not to express themselves independently.


Second, recently China-Russia has announced to hold a joint military exercise in Mediterranean in May. As it is known, the Mediterranean is an international channel where most of areas are EEZ of coastal states. From this aspect, it is similar to SCS area. In this logic, it hints that China would accept external countries to conduct military exercise and some general intelligence-gathering activities in EEZ in SCS. Therefore, the annual US-Philippine "Balikatan" (shoulder-to-shoulder) joint military exercise would be acceptable in EEZ of SCS, if the players could reach an agreement on the range of EEZ. This could further prove the author’s argument that China and US have not much significant differences on understanding military activities in EEZ in SCS.




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