Consensus at the top? China’s opportunism on Diaoyu and Scarborough Shoal

“New facts on the water”

In last week’s Sinica Podcast, M. Taylor Fravel discussed the March 1988 Sino-Vietnamese battle in the Spratly Islands, recounting how the PLAN Commander was moved from his post afterwards as a result of his unauthorized decision to open fire on the Vietnamese Navy.

This could make the 1988 battle appear as a historical example of uncoordination in the PRC’s behaviour towards the outside world — a rogue commander taking foreign policy into his own hands. However, the decision to send the Navy in to establish a presence on unoccupied reefs in the Spratlys was a centralized, high-level one.

Today, the Chinese Navy is better equipped and better trained, so the chances of something similar happening are small. The unwavering non-involvement of the PLAN in China’s maritime territorial disputes, even as tensions have risen to boiling point, is a testament to the navy’s professionalization, and a site of consensus among China’s policymakers. The US Department of Defense in 2011 presciently pinpointed (see p.60) the increasing use of non-military law enforcement agencies to press China’s claims in disputed waters as an important component of PRC policy. Since then, this approach has become ever-more salient.

China’s maritime law enforcement fleets have long been seen as a source of policy disorganization, both within China and abroad; back in 2002, for example, the Hainan Provincial NPC delegation tabled a motion to establish a unified maritime law-enforcement fleet.

But in the podcast Fravel drew attention to how this year the China Maritime Surveillance and Fisheries Law Enforcement fleets have actually coordinated rather well, both with each other and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in advancing China’s maritime claims.

As Professor Fravel has noted, there are significant parallels between China’s actions in the Scarborough Shoal and the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In both cases China has redefined the status quo to include its own patrol boats as a more or less permanent presence around the disputed features.

The China-Philippines standoff began in April this year when the Philippines sent its naval flagship to arrest some Chinese fishermen, but the result has been that China now for the first time has effective control of Scarborough Shoal. Following the Japanese government’s decision to purchase the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, CMS and FLEC boats have regularized their formerly occasional patrols in the waters around the islands.

Before the Diaoyu ruckus, some influential PRC media commentators had begun to discuss a “Huangyan Model” for resolving the South China Sea disputes in China’s favour. The main objection to it, from People’s Daily senior reporter Ding Gang’s perspective, was that China had not initiated the incidents and was thus being “passive”. But the real advances China has made speak for themselves.

The picture that’s emerging, then, is of a fairly well unified strategy of, in Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt’s terms, “reactive assertiveness“.

Thus, China’s strategy is opportunism — and in that sense it represents a continuation of the historical pattern of PRC actions to advance its position in maritime territorial disputes over the past 40 years:

  1. China’s seizing of decisive control of the Paracel Archipelago in 1974 by evicting remnants of the all-but-vanquished South Vietnamese army;
  2. The decision to establish a presence in the Spratlys in 1988 as Vietnam declined in importance to its backer the Soviet Union (see Chen Jie, 1994); and
  3. The taking by stealth of Mischief Reef in 1995 when the US military had left the Philippines a little more than two years prior.

In a chilling and highly influential piece in the Wall Street Journal last month, Professor Fravel — certainly no alarmist  — warned that there remains a major danger of China using force in relation to the Diaoyu dispute. The piece explained that historically the PRC has been more likely to use force:

  • against relatively powerful opponents;
  • in confrontations where it has not been in possession of the disputed territory; and
  • during periods of regime insecurity.

The current confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands fitted the bill on all three counts. Most important among these historical factors, the article argued, was the latter — regime insecurity:

China’s leaders today may feel on the ropes for several reasons—elite conflict at the highest levels of the ruling Chinese Communist Party; a slowing economy that undermines the legitimacy of the CCP; and a delicate transition of power from one generation of leaders to the next. These factors increase the value of using firm action to signal resolve to both Japan and the Chinese public. They also decrease Beijing’s willingness to compromise or be seen as backing down.

Let me emphasise here that Professor Fravel is the English-speaking world’s leading expert on China’s territorial disputes and i am a mere student, so i fully expect there to be all sorts of holes in the arguments that follow. Nonetheless, as a student i’m dutybound to put my logic to the test, so please do raise objections and rebuttals in the comments section.

First, the historical examples Professor Fravel was referring to were the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, which coincided with post-Great Leap Forward power struggles involving Liu Shaoqi and Lin Biao and Mao, the Sino-Soviet skirmishes during the Cultural Revolution, and perhaps the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, which occurred as Deng Xiaoping was consolidating his control of the party and military. Yet since then, none of the numerous periods of elite conflict have coincided with military aggression: the 1986-87 ‘Bourgeois Liberalisation’ campaign and the ousting of General-Secretary Hu Yaobang; the 1989 Tiananmen crisis; and the 2002 handover from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao. So in the reform era, elite contention doesn’t seem to have increased the likelihood of China deploying military force.

[Prof Fravel has clarified that he meant the PRC has been more likely to use force "during periods of regime insecurity *when* faced with challenges in a dispute" -- and this hasn't really happened in the reform era. Indeed (SSC speaking now) in his 2008 book Strong Borders, Secure Nation, a core element of Fravel's theory of the causes of escalation and use of force in territorial disputes is a state's perception that its already-weak relative position in relation to the disputed territory is weakening further. It is the combination of this perception with threats to regime security, that creates the incentive for resort to force.]

Second, the evidence of coordination in maritime territorial policy canvassed above, plus the clear advancement of China’s position on the water this year, and the decisiveness with which the party-state reacted following the Diaoyu purchase, all suggest that the current opportunistic, non-military approach is the subject of a broad and strong consensus among the Party leadership, if not the military. If so, then the outlook may not be as grim as Fravel and others have recently been warning.

Third, if the current policy was already the subject of relatively strong consensus within the leadership back in September, then the hardline rhetoric, provocative media reporting, and tolerance of public anti-Japan mobilizations were more likely part of that strategy than an attempt by leaders to head off or preempt opposition from within the Party or among the public. In the WSJ piece Fravel wrote:

China has used force in territorial disputes during periods of regime insecurity, when leaders have a greater incentive to show resolve: They believe that opposing states seek to take advantage of China’s domestic woes, and that a weak or limited response might increase popular discontent.

The angry rhetoric, protests and public attention on the issue may have been intended to create precisely that impression: the idea that because no-one among the leadership could afford to look weak, they would be compelled to respond strongly, even to the point of starting a war, if China’s ships were interfered with in the Diaoyu Islands.

Of course, if a maritime clash occurs it will indeed be difficult for either side to back down. But China has in the past 18 months shown no special desire to engage in actual incidents at sea. Therefore, in order to compel Japan to accept the new status quo, in addition to economic diplomacy, China looks to have created a strategic logic somewhat analogous to MAD, convincing the outside world that if an incident involving the CMS or FLEC occurs, the PRC will almost definitely escalate, and the situation will spiral out of control.

At present, then, the PRC is wielding the risk of escalation to its advantage, which helps explain why it continues to stall progress on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Such a Code would institute a binding procedure for de-escalating incidents that would deny China this threat of inevitable yet unpredictable consequences of opposing its law enforcement vessels.

The same logic was on display during the Scarborough Shoal dispute earlier this year, when China, through a combination of economic diplomacy, harsh diplomatic rhetoric, a wave of outrage in the media and online, and a hint of possible street protests, convinced the Philippines that it had no choice but to back down.

The result, to date, has indeed been acceptance of the new status quo by the Philippines and Japan.

This may be a high-wire act. The mere fact China tries to signal that compromise is out of the question does not make this untrue. In stoking public anger and ordering media attention on the issues, Beijing could in effect be deliberately subjecting itself to another form of “supervision by public opinion” to help consolidate its position on the water.

This all hinges on the assumption that a basic consensus existed around not only the non-use of military force the Diaoyu confrontation, but also the role of manifestations of “nationalistic” fervour in helping seize opportunities to change the status quo. Given the Hu-Wen regime’s obsession with “safeguarding stability”, it was perhaps surprising that street protests were allowed at such a sensitive time as August-September 2012. It could have been a sign of the regime’s belief in the utility of, and confidence in its ability to control, publicmobilization. But in the next post i will consider the possibility that elite contention, rather than consensus, may have been behind the tolerance of the anti-Japan street protests.

For now, the policy lesson for countries managing disputes with the PRC may be: if you want to hold your position, don’t give China an opportunity to get outraged.

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2 Comments on “Consensus at the top? China’s opportunism on Diaoyu and Scarborough Shoal”

  1. [...] Consensus at the top? China’s opportunism on Diaoyu and Scarborough Shoal → [...]

  2. […] Scarborough Shoal and Diaoyu Islands crises last year suggests the tougher stance was the subject of consensus. Had there been disagreement among the decisionmaking elite, with hawkish public opinion playing a […]


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