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!
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.
There was a post here last year about the KD Pari, a Malaysian Navy fast attack craft that sort-of-sank while allegedly chasing a Chinese ship near Swallow Reef. It still continues to attract traffic from the search engines, which hints at a general dearth of information on the Malaysian dimension to the South China Sea disputes.
Malaysia usually gets little noticed in the Chinese media too, when it comes to the South China Sea issue, but that changed with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Amin’s comment on August 12 that Southeast Asian states should sort out their South China Sea claims before negotiating with China. At a press conference right after his meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi (who wasn’t in attendance), Anifah said:
There are overlapping claims by member countries. Let us discuss these among ASEAN countries first before we talk to China . . . We can only achieve this objective in the South China Sea if all parties agree. Then China can appreciate this and realise it is ASEAN’s wish.
Although Malaysia’s official Bernama news agency did not report these comments, they were still picked up, translated and introduced into the Chinese media by the Huanqiu Shibao. This led in turn to the following report from Yunnan TV. As the summary translation indicates, it struck an indignant tone that painted Malaysia as yet another addition to the list of hostile anti-China forces.
Summary translation follows after the jump…
“Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!”: triumph, grief and human interest with the fisherfolk of TanmenPosted: June 13, 2012
This year the PRC media have published a succession of detailed stories on the plight of Chinese fisherfolk through the South China Sea disputes.
On February 22, for example, the Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News 羊城晚报 published ‘More than 95% of licenced Chinese fishermen have withdrawn from the Spratlys, afraid of detention by foreign gunboats‘.
There was no joy in 2011 for Spratly fishing boat captain Chen Songhan 陈松汉 of Taishan in Guangdong Province. He said that harassment from foreign gunboats had led to greatly increasing costs, declining fisheries resources, and decreasing benefits. And on May 9 last year, Beihai (Guangxi) fisherman Li Rixi’s 李日喜 fishing boat was siezed by foreign gunboats, causing economic losses of 1.23 million RMB, and he told the Yangcheng Evening News he was still a long way from recovering his strength.
Following the Chinese fishing boats’ escape from Philippines authorities at the start of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in mid-April, Xinhua put out some rather more rousing stories of triumph. There were numerous interviews with the returnees, apparently all from Tanmen town in Qionghai City, Hainan Province, such as this one, for which a version is available in English here under the headline, ‘Chinese fishermen recall clash with Philippine navy‘.
In early May there emerged the tale of more Qionghainese fishermen who had come home to avoid a typhoon, then turned around the very next day and gone straight back to Scarborough Shoal to “participate in the standoff”. That story contained the rather unforgettable line, as one fisherman’s wife recalled hearing her husband saying:
Relax wife, the fisheries administration is here!
This was splashed across the special total-coverage page in the May 4 edition of the Zhengzhou Evening News seen at the top. According to that story, it was originally taken from the Legal System Evening News 法制晚报.
Mid-May saw the return of Xu Detan 许德潭, the skipper of one of the Scarborough protagonist vessels, Qiong-Qionghai 09099, and who had featured prominently in Xinhua’s stories the previous month. This time he was telling CCTV that he’d just brought back a bumper haul of fish, and that it was all thanks to FLEC and the State Oceanic Administration’s China Maritime Surveillance force. According to the English version (here), Xu said:
Our boats are everywhere around the island, and we are afraid of nothing. The Chinese Marine Surveillance ships kept in contact with us around-the-clock.
Actually, Xu sort-of uttered words to that effect, but he didn’t name either of the agencies. Instead, their names were inserted by a CCTV editor as the subtitles in this frame show:
The upcoming East Asia Summit, the first to include America and Russia, is sure to involve some interesting South Sea diplomacy.
Ahead of the meeting, the Philippines has in the past few weeks been trying to organize a united ASEAN front based on demarcation of disputed and non-disputed sections of the South China Sea – known as the “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC)” proposal. China of course opposes this, and a Xinhua article yesterday claimed that it was little more than an attempt to help the US with its “return to Asia” strategy.
The Philippines’ efforts seemed at one point to have at least some momentum when, late last month, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang endorsed the ZoPFFC proposal. However, the idea seems to have decisively hit the wall in recent days, with the Malaysian Foreign Minister declaring that his country didn’t support the idea of raising the South China Sea issue at the EAS:
China is showing a positive step by organizing seminars and workshops . . . To introduce another forum will complicate the matter further.
Cambodia’s FM actually laughed when asked about the idea: “The problem is how to avoid . . . duplication,” he said, perhaps referring to each claimant state’s bilateral negotiations with China.
But a US presidential aide indicated today that Barack Obama will raise the issue at the EAS anyway. The Global Times has been swift in reporting the spokesman’s comments, under one of its inimitable headlines: ‘America plans to force itself into the South China Sea dispute, claims the issue is appropriate for the EAS’.
The Sixth East Asia Summit, aimed at pushing forward the process of East Asian integration and community, will begin in Bali on November 19. Yet the US, despite not being a relevant party to the South China Sea issue, and making its first appearance at the EAS, has declared that it wants to “discuss the South China Sea” at the summit.
However, the only major news website that has the story anywhere on its front page is Sina, which is running a toned-down CNS report, buried among other small headlines, rather than the GT’s fury-laced version, and this hasn’t attracted a great deal of attention so far (only 1,200 or so participants in the discussion, most comments voicing standard denunciations of American temerity). One particularly interesting reader comment, however, is to be found on the Chinese-language Wall Street Journal’s report, titled ‘China opposes discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS’:
What opposing discussion of the South China Sea at the EAS means is: “you can occupy the islands, but you can’t say so publicly”. China is only after face, not territory!
Although China definitely is after the territory, this comment is actually very incisive. The reality is that China currently occupies very little in the South China Sea – it has the Paracel Islands, but none of the genuine islands among the Spratlys – and as a result the CCP government loses face with the Chinese public every time the issue arises.
Update 1: Phoenix has just now posted the CNS report [zh] on the Obama staffer’s comments, if it provokes comment i will add some.
Update 2: QQ is running a report that ‘Japanese media claim US and ASEAN will issue joint statement on South China Sea’ [zh]. The report is from the Yoimuri Shimbun.