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.
In case i dont make it clear enough, a lot of what I write is speculative, my aim is to try understand these things as best I can, and I would really appreciate any alternative explanations, identification of shortcomings, points of disagreement, criticisms, biases identified, etc etc.
I am sure some of the interpretations I come up will turn out to be mistaken and/or incomplete, and although I hope some turn out to be right, it’s far from the end of the world if i’ve got it all wrong. It will be still have been worth the effort just to eliminate all those mistaken lines of thinking.
One idea i’ve been getting closer to ruling out is that Dai Xu and Luo Yuan aren’t serious PLA strategic thinkers. I think they are both propagandists and strategists. One sign is their publication in genuine journals like World Economics and Politics 《世界经济与政治》 (published by CASS), Contemporary International Relations 《现代国际关系》 (published by the MSS-affiliated CICIR), Contemporary World 《当代世界》 (CCP International Department), World Outlook 《国际展望》 (Shanghai Institute of International Relations), and Teaching and Research 《教育于研究》 (Renmin University).
While they are nominated as propaganda experts, they could still spend the bulk of their time in the world of thought rather than propaganda. Even Dai Xu, whose gigantic mass media output suggests he could probably spare little time for academic work, stated in 2009 that he does both internal and external work — that is, both thought 思想 and propaganda 宣传.
The difference between the two, as he said in his lecture to the PLAAF Political Academy in Shanghai, is that “in thought, anything goes, but propaganda has discipline”. This was, he said, the most important lesson he learned at the academy, his alma mater. There may be a large degree of crossover between Dai Xu Thought, and Dai Xu Propaganda — they may in fact be the same, except that the latter is presented and attenuated according to propaganda imperatives.
What follows, then, is something long overdue given the amount of attention i have focused on the propaganda side of Dai Xu and Luo Yuan’s work: a partial translation of an essay that i think may come close to representing what Dai Xu really thinks, as a strategist, on the South China Sea issue. It might not be pure thought…if there was such a thing, probably the only place it could reliably be identified would be in internal-circulation articles. But People’s Tribune Frontiers 《人民论坛.学术前沿》 appears a reputable (though recently-founded) CCP journal produced by the People’s Daily group, without any attempt at mass appeal, suggesting the audience would be mainly Party members and scholars, and perhaps soldiers and policymakers too. In other words, it could conceivably be part of the “internal work” that Dai says he does — Dai Xu Thought.
The article is titled ‘ “Attacking the Enemy before It is Fully Prepared”: A Petition for Changing South China Sea Strategy (“兵半渡可击”:南海战略万言书)’, and is freely available via a Hainan-based website called ‘Maritime Domain Online’ (海疆在线) that i suspect is run by the Hainan Maritime Security and Cooperation Institute that Dai Xu directs.
As the title suggests, Dai makes specific policy suggestions, based on a contention that China has a rapidly-closing “window of opportunity” to “resolve” the South China Sea issue, and should therefore act sooner rather than later. Notably, however, one of these suggestions is to call for the total demilitarization of the South China Sea’s disputed areas. He advocates “intensifying economic exploitation” but also “welcoming cooperation”. He argues China should rally round the nine-dash line and avoid any involvement of UNCLOS, but he also seems to advocate negotiations. Dai’s calls for military preparations and willingness to use force to back up the assertive actions he suggests, but his emphasis is on deterrence and willpower.
Big thanks to Xu Shaomin for suggesting the article.
Here is the abstract, followed by a translation of the section in which Dai makes his policy suggestions with some thoughts on those policies appended, and finally a brief consideration of some implications for the explanations i’ve recently offered for the public activities of PLA “hawks” like Dai.
By Dai Xu
People’s Tribune [Academic] Frontiers 《人民论坛－－学术前沿》
ABSTRACT: An indisputable fact is that China is facing unprecedented challenges presented by the South China Sea issue. The said issue has been internationalized, and will soon become a focus of international politics. The South China Sea is of great significance for China’s development and security. With the development of this issue, Vietnam will rise to be China’s major concern. To successfully resolve this issue, China needs to devise a “protracted war” strategy; use the current crisis as an opportunity for a shift in military strategy; set up an interdepartmental coordination committee; and materially change its current South China Sea policy.
Specific suggestions to resolve the South China Sea issue
|(1.) Institute determination to resolve the issue, and commence joint preparations in all areas. At present America is not ready and has not properly armed those small countries, and external powers like Japan have not substantively entered the dispute. China must seize and occupy the strategic heights of the future, and cannot let it become the Yellow Sea again.||
The idea of (1) gets to the heart of the paper’s debatable but nonetheless logically defensible premise: namely, that China has a 5-10 year “window of opportunity” while the US is bogged down in the Middle East.
I don’t really understand this Yellow Sea reference.
|(2.) Unite thinking, resolutely stick to the nine-dash line. The nine-dash line is the legal basis for China’s ownership of the Spratlys, and we absolutely cannot renounce it. We cannot make UNCLOS the main note of negotiations.||
The strong defence in of the nine-dashed line as “legal basis” of China’s claim in (2), and associated rejection of UNCLOS, is somewhat surprising, considering that elsewhere Dai is quite keen on transparency and clarity of intentions. Why not clarify the claim? China could continue to claim all the land features within the nine-dash line, and actually be in accordance with UNCLOS. China’s real reason for not clarifying may be that it would entail enforcement under Chinese law, which the CCP may not be keen to commit to at this point. If so, could this particular argument of Dai’s be aimed at maintaining morale, while avoiding that sort of dangerous bind?
|(3.) On the level of unified thinking, eliminate fear of America. Surveying US-Russian relations one can see that America respects strength. Russia halted the US [Cold War] strategic attack in Southeast Asia, and stopped the expansion of NATO beyond Ukraine and Georgia. We cannot say that [Deng/Jiang’s doctrine of] “lying low 韬光养晦” is incorrect, but China is unaware of how to “loot a burning house 趁火打劫”. China must have an awareness of global strategic games. China should participate in South American affairs, the scramble for Arctic resources, Middle East affairs, African affairs, and force the US to encircle us all around the world, “saving Zhao by besieging Wei 围魏救赵”, thus reducing the pressure on our doorstep. Increase cooperation with Russia, cooperate on the Kurils issue to draw Japan northward, and weaken US military allies.||
The idea of causing headaches for the US around the world to relieve the pressure on China’s periphery, as set out in (3), employs a coherent (if somewhat unhealthy when viewed from outside) strategic logic.
I’m not going to pretend to know what’s best for China, but the multi-departmental group mentioned in (4) also seems to make sense.
|(4.) Establish a multi-departmental South China Sea coordination small group. The group would be jointly composed from the military, academia, State Oceanic Administration, Hainan Provincial Government, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It should change the situation of the MFA being under stress from dealing with the complicated South China Sea situation alone. It should coordinate all the departments relevant to the South China Sea.||
(4) contains a clear argument for reducing the MFA’s power in South China Sea policymaking, via an indirect but unmistakable criticism of both the prominence of the Foreign Ministry’s role, and the job it is doing. Dai’s apparent perception of the MFA as dominating South China Sea policy is in stark contrast to various foreign analysts who have written of the weakness of the MFA, fragmentation in China’s foreign policymaking, especially on maritime disputes.
|(5.) Major adjustment must be made to South China Sea policy, prioritizing [economic] exploitation . Since diplomacy being unable to resolve the issue, and our country is unwilling to go to war lightly, all that remains is to greatly intensify economic exploitation. Our country’s South China Sea policy should be adjusted to: sovereignty is ours, intensifying exploitation, welcoming cooperation, not fearing controversy, striking against provocation. Exploitation is central. In order to reduce the concerns of the international community, China’s exploitation should proceed with the primary objective of serving the world. For example, constructing an international shipping depot, and an international tourism and sightseeing spot. To this end, a South China Sea Special Zone should be established, as a maritime screen that also performs the functions of economic national defense 经济国防.||
Dai’s Hainan connections keep stacking up. It seems likely that he is to some extent speaking on behalf of the Hainan Provincial Government, especially with the strong advocacy of economic development projects in (5).
How novel is “economic national defense 经济国防“, meaning economic activities for national defense purposes, in the Chinese context and more broadly?
|(6.) Call on all countries’ militaries to withdraw from the South China Sea. Because Vietnam and the Philippines’ garrisoning of troops has affected regional shipping security, China should call for all countries to pull out their militaries simultaneously. This way, China can claim the moral high ground.||
Dai in (5) describes China being “unwilling” to go to war lightly as a “situation” that has left massive resource exploitation as the only option — which sounds like a (grudging?) admission that direct military action is off the policy table. Then in (6) he actually advocates the pullout of all military forces from the area, apparently including China’s.
|(7.) Prepare properly for war [with Vietnam]. China should, at the appropriate time, adjust its strategic focus, and conduct far-sighted and realistic research on the South China Sea. Make every kind of war preparation in the South China Sea area, especially for war-fighting 作战 against Vietnam. As soon as conflict commences, Vietnam’s facilities must be totally destroyed, and its ports blockaded.||
Dai is very harsh and provocative regarding Vietnam, for example in (7). What is Dai’s problem with Vietnam? Or could it be Hainan’s problem with Vietnam?
Enacting strategic containment of Vietnam is beneficial to the long-term stability of the South China Sea region, and also to improving our country’s overall security situation.
Implications for ‘Propaganda, Not Policy’
While some of these arguments may be attenuated from Dai’s mass media statements, he really does appear to be attempting to pushing for policy change in the South China Sea, which at a glance spells trouble for the ‘Propaganda, Not Policy’ explanation i’ve been proposing. Yet, contrary to what some angry military enthusiasts assume, the Propaganda Not Policy argument does not necessarily imply Dai Xu doesn’t mean what he says. He may mean most or all of what he says publicly, but he only says it if and when it accords with the priorities of his superiors in the military propaganda system.
Alternatively, considering the likely target audience of the People’s Tribune Frontiers, an article such as this could be aimed at the masses of cadres, officers and possibly soldiers. David Cohen discussed in the most recent China Brief how the constitutionalism debate could be intended to rally cadres to be vigilant and toe the line. It’s plausible that this has a similar intent.
What’s different about this is that it has been published in a forum for genuine scholarly debate over policy, rather than a mass medium. Perhaps all that is certain about this possible piece of Dai Xu Thought, is that he was attempting to influence the Party and academic policy debate within China. Whether the ultimate aim of that was to institute the specific policy actions, or to shift the mindset of the readers — such as by raising the vigilance of cadres and perhaps soldiers — is unclear to me. What do you think? What are the other possibilities that i’m overlooking?
 Other notable titles that Luo and/or Dai have been published in include Party & Government Forum 《党政干部文摘》 (Shanghai and Central Party School versions), World Affairs 《世界知识》 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Contemporary Military Digest 《当代军事文摘》 (PLA Publishing House), Aerospace Knowledge 《航空知识》 (China Aviation Society). Found using CNKI database.
 I’m going to leave out the “external” from the “external propaganda expert” title, as it risks confusing the issue. Military external propaganda, as noted here, is not just about foreigners, and in fact may be overwhelmingly domestically directed, even as it serves international goals of public opinion warfare.
 Unless he has a team of ghost writers…?! His book publishing, however, has indeed slowed down in recent years.
 Can anyone enlighten me as to the People’s Tribune (Frontiers) target readership and/or purposes?
 Sovereignty over merely the largest two or three of the Spratlys — those with fresh water and therefore at least arguably inhabitable — would generate exclusive economic rights covering most of the area within the nine-dash line.
 开发, aka “development”.
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…