When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Manila, Philippines during a 2018 state visit, he assured all that the two nations had entered a new era of diplomacy that promised to turn the long-disputed areas of the South China Sea into a “sea of peace.” Xi had previously issued an official communique that told the tale of how famed Chinese mariner Zheng He, with the massive Treasure Fleet of the 15th Century Ming Dynasty, had embarked on seven great voyages of “peace and friendship.” On one such voyage, claimed Xi, the Chinese explorer Zheng and his fleet sailed into Manila Bay.
It was a fanciful tale on two counts: Zheng never sailed into Manila Bay and Xi’s regime in Beijing has brought no peace to the South China Sea (SCS).
Behind Beijing’s once-beguiling diplomacy is the now unconcealed Chinese design to encompass nearly the whole of the SCS as territorial waters of China. China claims sovereignty over virtually all the islands of the SCS and the adjacent territorial waters, even though much of this area is in the demarcated Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) inside the 200 nautical mile limit of the coastlines of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan.
The Nine Dash Lines
The significance and consequences of these Chinese claims cannot be overstated. China’s intention is to make more than 80-85 percent of that region part of its own EEZ at the expense of other nations and the international community. China wants to claim sovereign territorial rights to these waters and, thereby, justification to control the passage of the world’s ships—both merchant and military—in what have always been international waters. Some $5.3 trillion in global trade and 30 percent of global oil exports ship through these same waters annually. In addition, these claims would give China exclusive rights, according to a diplomatic note Beijing penned to the international Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, “to the relevant waters and seabed and subsoils thereof,” and the vast fisheries, minerals, and fossil fuels in these waters—which the US Energy Information Agency estimates hold 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
At the center of China’s unprecedented claim is a crude map of the ‘nine dash lines’ that encompass nearly all of the islands in the SCS. The map was created after World War II by the Kuomintang government of the Republic of China and quickly adopted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to represent the Chinese nation’s historic legacy of territories from the Ming and Qing dynasties and bolster the Party’s irredentist claims. Unlike its geo-political rivals—with foreign policies and plans that can turn on the result of an election—China’s strategy for this region is rooted in Party orthodoxies and mapped out over decades. Beijing is positioned here to play the “long game” to outlast its rivals, exhaust any opponents, and present a fait accompli to the international community of ownership by occupation in the SCS. That strategy is bolstered by a cunning campaign of propaganda that stirs Chinese pride and patriotism and bolsters the standing of the Xi regime.
Beijing’s 2009 announcement of territorial claims in the SCS put it on a collision course with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia—all nations that officially protested the use of the line to establish PRC territories in the SCS. Since 2016, Beijing has taken increasingly bellicose actions in the region—actions that have moved from strident diplomatic demands, through a phase of low intensity coercion to brazen displays of military muscle. In so doing, China is acting outside the norms of international behavior and ignoring the rule of law. In response, other nations are left with very few options to dissuade, to deter, or to deny China’s extraterritorial ambitions in the SCS—and all are fraught with risk.
Little room is now left for SCS nations and the international community to rely on diplomacy and suasion to pull China back from its unlawful island occupations or steer Beijing away from a course that risks regional armed conflict and threat of a wider war. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would seem well positioned to help resolve the dispute. China, however, is not an ASEAN member state, so the dispute is not an intra-ASEAN issue. Moreover, any action taken by the United Nations inimical to China’s interest would immediately draw Beijing’s veto from its seat on the Security Council.
Diplomacy and the Law of the Sea
Beijing regards disputes in the SCS as matters for bilateral negotiations. Bilateralism gives Beijing greater control over the outcomes of its diplomacy and the ability to conduct negotiations privately. China has little or nothing to gain from multi-lateral initiatives and so refuses to be a party to international efforts to find a diplomatic solution. The most meaningful attempt at international diplomacy was made in 2013 when the Philippines sought formal arbitration to resolve its dispute with China over possession of territory in the Spratly Islands. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled in 2016 there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights,” to exclusive control of the waters and resources inside the dash lines. The tribunal also found China had violated Philippine sovereignty and caused “severe harms” to the environment.
The nations aggrieved by China’s claims welcomed and accepted the unequivocal and unprecedented ruling. China purposefully declared the ruling “null and void.” Paramount Leader Xi bluntly rejected the ruling outright and stated flatly “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way.”
Xi was as good as his word. The Xi regime is using China’s vast resources and all the levers of the nation’s power—diplomatic, informational, military, economic—to intimidate, overmatch, and coerce nations bordering the region to gain and keep control of the islands and waters of the SCS.
Beijing has invested heavily in its debunked nine dash narrative as a part of China’s administrative territory. These claims play to the Party’s nationalist overtures and are ingrained in a studied campaign of propaganda to build national unity and a broad view of the Party as guardian of the nation’s sovereignty. The nine dash line now appears on passports and maps; in schoolroom texts, books, movies, television programs, and on-line games; on leaflets; and even on t-shirts. The movie Abominable—co-produced by US and Chinese animation studios in 2019—provoked censorship in Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines by including a glimpse of the nine dash line map. It’s a clever and well-orchestrated information campaign and a telling demonstration of China’s ability to pull one of the levers of soft power. Then, in 2020, China unilaterally announced it had established two new administrative districts in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands, both of which are claimed by Vietnam.
In the face of failed diplomacy and the Xi regime’s resolute defiance of the results of international arbitration, some SCS nations seek to deter China from using force to establish more than just titular administrative control of the region. None of these nations, however, seem willing or even able to act in concert for mutual defense. The best that can be said of any effort at building a military deterrent is that it may be sufficient to make it costly for China to resort to the overt use of force in the territorial waters of a rival claimant.
Vietnam, for example, now has military capabilities that arguably give that nation a credible military deterrent. The Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) procured Russian-built arms that include six modern Kilo-class diesel submarines, frigates, and corvettes. In addition, the VPA has added a network of anti-area missiles that include the Russian Bastion shore based anti-ship cruise missile system and modernized its air forces with long range strike aircraft. Vietnam has also improved its island outposts in the Spratlys, adding guided rocket artillery launchers on several installations—weapons capable of striking Chinese land-based targets in the region.
Given continued Chinese provocations in the SCS, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all plan to upgrade and modernize their armed forces but are hamstrung by both limited budgets and the dead weight of old and obsolete equipment. The Philippines, for example, carry in inventory ships that are four decades old and even some that were commissioned during World War II. Manila has been more successful in rebuilding its coast guard and—with Japanese funding and shipbuilding—will take possession of the first two of ten, armed, 300-foot, multi-role response vessels in 2022.
But there is no naval arms race is underway in the SCS. The reality is that SCS nations with claims in the region would be hard-pressed to mount any effective response to Chinese maritime intervention and have no means of projecting power, of sustaining offensive operations, or even of maintaining a Fabian defense in their own waters. China’s military capabilities are overwhelming already and still growing. With a fleet of 300 surface ships and submarines, the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is the largest in Asia; the flotilla of the Chinese Southern Theater Navy is the dominant force in the SCS.
But Beijing’s military strategy is not just to achieve regional maritime dominance. The PRC aims to amass power projection capabilities from forward operating bases on islands throughout the SCS. During the last decade, China has been engaged in a sustained effort to build bases on what once were little more than small island strips of sand, shallow reefs, and rocks. Some 3,200 acres of new land for bases has been created by massive dredging operations in the disputed Spratly Islands and hundreds more acres have been created in the Paracel Islands. These bases are now the site of port facilities and airfields to support maritime logistics, sea patrols and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. China has also fortified these island outposts with bunkers, radar installations, upgraded sensors and anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. In 2019, China conducted an anti-ship ballistic missile test near the Spratly Islands to showcase an enhanced naval capability and demonstrate the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ability to counter any military interventions.
Beijing has yet to permanently deploy forces of the PLAN, or the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) to these military outposts. But deployment of PLA forces to these forward bases would give China the capability to handily defeat the weaker military forces of other SCS nations and project power deep into the surrounding ocean areas. This war-time deployment would likely be Beijing’s military response to the worst-case scenario of concerted action by SCS nations, or Western or US intervention to deny China control of the region.
Instead, China will, in the near term, continue to rely on coercion and intimidation tactics—radioed threats, shadowing, ramming ships, using water cannons, tracking with fire control radar—short of the overt use of armed force. These so-called “gray-zone” tactics engage the China Coast Guard (CCG) in supposed maritime law enforcement operations and the Peoples Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) in harassing commercial fishing fleets, small merchant vessels, and exploration and survey ships of other nations operating in the SCS. The CCG is the largest such force in the world with more than 300 vessels. More than 70 percent of all major “incidents at sea” in the SCS involve CCG and PAFMM vessels. Earlier this year China’s new Coast Guard Law transferred control of the CCG from civilian to military hands and, ominously, authorized the CCG to use lethal force on foreign vessels that fail to heed orders to leave waters claimed by China. There are teeth in that threat to use force, too. All CCG ships are well-armed and in 2017, the CCG added a 12,000-ton cutter to its forces in the region. It’s the most heavily armed coast guard ship in the world and a vessel larger than a US Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser. Beyond the CCG, the Southern Theater Navy is just over the horizon and, once committed, land-based attack aircraft can sortie from fortified Chinese-held island bases throughout the SCS in support of any Chinese maritime force.
More worrisome is China’s engagement in slow intensity conflict—forceful actions to press up to and even past the maritime frontiers of nations in the region—and create a de facto permanent presence with its large fishing fleet and with PAFMM and resource survey ships. The Xi regime seems intent to do so even in the face of the lawfully adjudicated claims of neighboring nations, in contravention of international agreements and law, and at the risk of the opprobrium of the world community. China has also assumed an increasingly bellicose posture in the region and, lately, a willingness to engage in saber-rattling and massive show-of-force demonstrations. This year China conducted some 20 amphibious landing exercises in the SCS and in the Taiwan Strait, launched more than 100 aircraft over a three-day period to test Taiwan’s air defense systems, and kicked off a series of robust naval exercises immediately before combined drills for the United States, India, Japan, and Australia took place off the coast of Guam.
Taiwan presents the only robust military force in the region, but Taipei’s Operational Defense Concept is a defensive strategy oriented to preserving assets after a first strike, fighting a decisive battle in its immediate littoral region, and destroying invading forces during landing. Taiwan does not possess an expeditionary capability and is unlikely to commit forces to the undefended Taiping Island in the SCS. Taiwan’s most credible deterrence lies in its unique relationship with the United States. Washington has never explicitly committed to a defense of Taiwan and has lately sent mixed signals of its future intent. But military to military contacts between the two nations are extensive and the US has enhanced Taiwan’s security with substantial and regular arms sales. More critically, defense of Taiwan is regarded as a litmus test for US resolve in its relations with friendly nations and partners in Asia.
The grim reality is SCS countries are simply overmatched. Beijing’s constant campaign of coercion, harassment, the use of gray zone tactics, slow intensity conflict, and the threat of massive use of force are all intended to sap the strength and weaken the resolve of other claimants in the SCS. The nations of Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam have few options to effectively counter future Chinese military operations. Diplomacy and dissuasion have failed to produce results. Deterring Chinese aggression in the SCS is possible but can only be achieved by nations with credible military capabilities and the readiness to engage in armed conflict. This level of deterrence is only possible with the support of the international community and leadership from the West, and especially from the United States. To deny Beijing control over the islands and waters of the SCS risks not only regional conflict, but the possibility of a wider Pacific war.
Beijing’s revanchist foreign policy at play in the South China Sea is rooted in a strategy that constantly seeks to legitimize the Communist Party as the guardian of the state. The nation’s territorial sovereignty is imperative to a government that demands absolute authority to protect the homeland from fractious internal unrest, from the predations of bordering countries, and from foreigners, like those who occupied China during its Century of Humiliation. China’s foreign policy in the South China Sea also demonstrates the Party’s determination to claim historic rights to territories even as reputable historians debunk those claims. Simply put, Beijing cannot back down from its claims in the SCS; there is no way to do so that permits the Xi regime to save face.
If the Xi regime succeeds and realizes its extraterritorial claims, without resort to force of arms in a broad conflict, China will present Asian nations, the West, and the United States with a stunning setback. Beijing will also have succeeded in legitimizing the Xi regime and the territorial goals of the Communist Party, undercutting US influence in the region, and reaping the rewards of unchecked aggression.