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.”
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.
The People’s Daily‘s short front-page commentary, ‘Certain countries have serious strategic misunderstandings on the South China Sea issue’ has created quite a stir inside and outside China. This was clearly the intention, since the commentary appears to have been republished or reported in every mainland newspaper, and Xinhua put out an English-language summary of the article.
This commentary by ‘Zhong Sheng’ (钟声 – Clock Sound), takes a completely different tone to the one published on July 20 under the same byline (discussed on this blog here), which was titled ‘The South China Sea problems cannot possibly be solved without a good environment’ and argued that “the time of using non-peaceful means to resolve territorial disputes has passed”. ‘Zhong Sheng’ takes aim at the Philippines for its construction of an army shelter on Feixin/Flat Island, one of the Spratly islands it occupies:
The “peace agreement” is obviously just a cheap trick by Manila. What happened on Feixin Island a few days ago shows that what the Philippines says and does are two different things, and that Manila clearly lacks sincerity in resolving the South China Sea issues peacefully.
. . .
The Philippines’ actions not only violate Chinese territorial sovereignty, they also ruin ASEAN’s position.
The article concludes with the ominous warning that the Chinese and international media picked up on:
All sides must be awake to the fact that China’s principled position does not mean it can casually allow other countries to opportunistically “nibble” at its territory. Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.
Far from dousing down public anger over recent events in the South China Sea, as it did on July 20, those in charge of the People’s Daily now appear to be consciously directing the Chinese people’s attention towards the issue. A ready explanation for this is offered by the Wenzhou high-speed rail crash that took place in the interim, and which turned the blowtorch of critical attention on the Party. As it tries to dampen down the frenzy of chatter and speculation about the causes of the disaster in Wenzhou, the Party may deploying be the very same process of “misdirection” or “shifting the people’s focus” (zhuanyi renmin de shixian) that He Liangliang says Vietnam is deploying in its escalation of the South China dispute.
However, if the aim of the article was to direct public outrage away from the CCP and towards the Philippines, it doesn’t seem to have worked very well, judging by the following most-recommended comments on the story on Phoenix Online.
“Hottest comments” from 25,154 participants/663 comments as at August 4, 2011, 6.00pm BJ:
湖 南山东人 [Hunan Shandongese] (Wenzhou, Zhejiang): If the little Filipinos’ [/nobodies’ 小非] brains are any good at all, they will listen to the subtext of this article, which says that backing off is the only wise course of action. Many things in this world cannot be solved by persuasion. China has a saying, “even the worst child fears the big stick”, and this could be very usefully applied to the Philippines and Vietnam. For them, if their morals are not up to the task, let us meet on the battlefield. [5218 recommends]
gmgb (Zibo, Shandong): By not acting when it should have China has missed a good opportunity, every day talking about how “this or that island is ours” while not a single one of the countries around us supports this. Heixiazi Island [on the northeastern border with Russia] – we’ll take half of that. There’s a large swath of territory that’s subject to unresolved disputes with India, and getting back the Diaoyu Islands is looking even more difficult. Reality has shown that “shelve differences, develop jointly” is unworkable, and this is the bad consequence of not acting when one should act. [3801 recommends]
天 地神人 [God of Heaven and Earth] (Nanning, Guangxi): The signing of the “guidelines” [with ASEAN in July] marks the latest of China’s unequal treaties. Since the South Sea is Chinese territory, on what basis are ASEAN countries deciding on rules of conduct? If China signs the “guidelines”, that means accepting that the South Sea is not Chinese territory, but rather an area of sea whose ownership is undecided. [3012 recommends]
asqcc (Wuhan, Hubei): What have China’s specific actions been? China’s intrinsic domains cannot be lost from the hands of this generation! We will not be sinners of history! [2222 recommends]
刚 才 [Just Now] (Pingxiang, Jiangxi): Who will recognize the authority of a rising great power that does not verify its capabilities through military force? When even a third-rate little country like the Philippines dares to break ground on the regional boss’s [太岁] head, what sort of regional boss are you? [1631 recommends]
易水寒禅 (Yunnan): “Those who make serious strategic misjudgements on this issue will pay the appropriate price.” What price is the Philippines paying? At this point I can’t see any! [1237 recommends]
Deal1 [奈何1] (Zhejiang): They have occupied it for more than 30 years, their judgement is perfectly correct, you don’t dare do anything~ [1049 recommends]
If the Communist Party leaders really do monitor internet opinion as they say they do, they must have been able to predict the kinds of responses above – the comments translated on this blog suggest that many netizens have long been frustrated and even embarrassed by the Chinese government’s strategy, seeing it as all talk and no action. The most-supported comment on iFeng in the wake of China’s agreement with ASEAN and the subsequent news story about the five Filipino MPs’ visit to a disputed island expressed the view that in the absence of genuine actions aimed at recovering the “lost” islands, the government’s menacing words were making China a laughing stock. An alternative explanation might imagine the writers or sponsors of the article as intending to provoke public criticism of the policy status quo. This could only help the cause of any potential leftist/Maoist or conservative forces aiming to increase their influence through the 2012 leadership transition. Is the notion of Party hardliners whipping up criticism of the Party status quo a crackpot theory or a plausible explanation?