In a vivid illustration of how dynamic the status quo in the South China Sea can be, an apparently new Spratly island, formed by the forces of nature, has become a source of tension between China and Malaysia.
Luconia Breakers (Hempasan Bantin / 琼台礁) is just over 100km north of James Shoal, the shallow patch of ocean that Chinese people are routinely taught is the southernmost point of their country’s “territory“, despite it being several metres underwater.
As this post will show, unlike James Shoal, the territory at Luconia Breakers actually exists above the waterline. This is significant because if the PRC ever needs to clarify the nature of its maritime claims under international law, it could end up adopting the “new” feature as its southernmost territory.
Topping off the intrigue, the train of events leading to the current Sino-Malaysian standoff may well have been set in motion by an adventurous Chinese magazine team.
Below is a piece published at The Diplomat, running through what the “status quo” is in the South China Sea, and the difficulties encountered in trying to define it. Aside from identifying some key metrics of the current situation in the disputed area, the aim was generate some debate, or at least second thoughts, about the usefulness of the “status quo” as a normative standard. The concept has proved useful in diplomacy over Taiwan, Korea and elsewhere, and (arguably) in international relations theory. But given the complex, watery nature of the South China Sea dispute, i argue it’s not likely to help in establishing the kind of clear-cut, universally recognized standards the region needs to forestall escalation there.
The term’s broad-brush vagueness – it simply means “the existing situation” – may make it appealing for practitioners of diplomacy, but the lack of clarity limits its usefulness as an analytic tool. More troublingly, being such an all-encompassing term, its use as a normative standard is inevitably selective, resulting in inconsistencies that risk breeding misunderstanding and mistrust. Unless used with care and nuance, it is a term that is more likely to undermine than underpin a “rules-based order” in maritime Asia.
The U.S. position on the East and South China Sea disputes, as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and other officials have frequently reiterated in recent months, is that it opposes changes to the status quo made through force or coercion. Senior U.S. military and civilian officials have used this standard formulation frequently since mid-2013, most prominently in relation to the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), and its well-publicized island-construction project in the South China Sea.
Claimants in the disputed seas have also embraced the idea of defending the status quo from Chinese advances. The leaders of Japan and the Philippines on June 4 affirmed their opposition to “unilateral attempts to changes the status quo.” Vietnam maintains a slightly subtler position that stops short of outright opposition, as typified by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s call for countries to refrain from “actions that would complicate the situation and change the status quo of rocks and shoals.”
The spectacular photographs of China’s progress in creating artificial islands in the South China Sea have deservedly generated a flurry of attention in the media and punditry in the past week or so.
The pictures show the amazing transformation, over the past year or so, of submerged atolls into sizeable islands with harbours, roads, container depots, workers’ dormitories and even cement plants. The reclamation activities have been documented periodically since early 2014 by Vietnamese bloggers, the Philippines foreign ministry, defense publisher IHS Janes, and, most recently, the Washington-based CSIS’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
These images seem to have a special ability to catch people’s eyes and draw attention to the issue. On my own humble Twitter feed, where most posts are lucky to be noticed by anyone, when i’ve attached images of China’s artificial Spratlys, the stats suddenly light up with dozens of retweets, many from strangers.
With this viral quality, and visual impact, they could well become iconic images that define the South China Sea issue as a whole. So amidst the surge of interest, it’s worthwhile reflecting on what’s not in the pictures. Here’s my stocktake, together with a collection of less widely-circulated photos:
- The scoreboard: China is still well behind
- The company: reclamation is part of most claimants’ Spratly strategies
- The history: it’s not new, and that does matter for policy responses
- The regional context: easing tensions
- The environment: an unfolding tragedy
Additions, omissions and arguments most welcome!
Here’s another attempt at what a blog post probably should be: a short comment on some things i’ve read online. It’s about the New York Times’ report this week on China’s island reclamation work in the Spratlys, which i think missed some important background context to China’s activities.
The subject, in summary:
China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials say is a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The officials say the islands will be able to support large buildings, human habitation and surveillance equipment, including radar.
This island reclamation is the latest in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to strengthen its presence in the Spratly Islands, which it views as crucial due to their proximity to China’s sea approaches, as well as present (fisheries) and future (energy) resource bounties.
East Asia Forum was yesterday kind enough to publish a piece called ‘Can the US tone down to ASEAN’s tune?’. I was asked to write about how the region should respond to crises like the Sino-Vietnamese standoff in the South China Sea, and the following is just my attempt at contributing something vaguely original to the discussion. I’m ready to be told it’s naive, silly or completely nuts; my only request is that if you think so, please say so!
As Bill Bishop suggested in the Sinocism Newsletter a couple of weeks back, the region at this point appears unable to impose costs on Beijing for the kind of escalatory conduct exemplified by its unilateral placement of the oil drilling rig HYSY-981 in disputed waters this month. This is definitely worth thinking long and hard about. We also need to consider the incentives that the international situation may be creating for this kind of assertiveness, and work to reduce these.
The following article’s bold proclamation about “what is needed” isn’t meant literally; although that wording suggests otherwise, i really am not claiming to know what is needed or tell the real experts that they don’t. It’s just a suggestion, a case to be made, which is based on:
- My reading of how China sees these issues and its strategic interests (relatively sensitive to the possibility of ASEANization of the issue, relatively insensitive to US grandstanding);
- What hasn’t worked to deter Beijing from assertive behaviour thus far (the US leading the criticism of China’s provocative actions and strengthening ties with China’s rival claimants); and
- Discussions with some friends and experts, whose feedback was vital to refining the idea (i’d name them but i’m not sure they wouldn’t prefer to remain nameless).
EAF allowed me a generous 1200-odd words, and i ought to thank the editors for their excellent job of compressing it. Nonetheless, a few other clarifications had to be left out for space reasons, so i’m adding them after the end of this post, mainly for my own benefit i imagine.
Anyway, here’s my crackpot idea, which which i put out there to be critiqued, so please don’t hold back . . .
Peking University Professor Wang Yizhou, one of China’s top foreign policy scholars, did an interview for the excellent new Carnegie-Tsinghua podcast last month (Part 1 and Part 2), covering a very broad sweep of China’s emerging foreign policy, regional strategy, territorial disputes, global role, and bilateral relations with the US.
His main points are noted below, starting with regional strategy and China’s maritime territorial disputes. I’ve just done this as an exercise to try to better grasp the significance of what Wang says; for most people it’s probably better to just go listen to the podcast. The italicized blockquote bits are a mix of direct quotes and paraphrasing.
Xi’s task: a “soft landing” for the South China Sea dispute
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.