South China Sea Dispute: The Rise of China (First of Three Parts)

09.07.2016
Foreign Affairs Security Politics

China’s interests in the South China Sea can be explained by its desire to secure fishing resources, assert its presence across sea lines of communication and trade and commerce, and consolidate its status as a rising superpower.

By Uriel N. Galace

This is the first installment in a three-part series analyzing the interests and strategies of the major countries involved in the South China Sea dispute. Read part two: U.S. Interests and Duterte's Detente here.||Read part three: ASEAN and the Economics of Influence here.

Overview

The maritime dispute in the South China Sea is one of the most consequential issues confronting the international community today. It involves six claimant states fighting for control over features in a sea that contains 12% of the world’s total fish catch1, 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and a trade route through which $5 trillion worth of commercial goods pass every year.2 The stakes of the dispute cannot be understated.

More than the economic resources to be gained, however, the dispute is highly sensitive because it is inextricably linked with issues of national identity and political power. It poses questions about which countries have sovereignty over particular territories, which states possess legal ownership over specific islands, and which peoples have historical rights to certain marine resources. This has invariably fanned the flames of nationalism within the populations of claimant states, giving rise to violent protests against opposing factions, and fueling xenophobic sentiment against the peoples of competing claimant states.

Since PAMPUBLIKO last wrote about this issue in January 2016, several major developments have taken place. An arbitral tribunal in The Hague, largely ruled in favor of the Philippines in its landmark case against China, rejecting the latter’s sweeping claims over much of the territories in the South China Sea. Immediately after, President Rodrigo Duterte—who is perceived to be friendlier with China than his predecessor—appointed Former President Fidel Ramos as a special envoy to China to kickstart bilateral talks. Ramos, who is widely respected in both Chinese and Filipino circles as an elder statesman, visited Hong Kong to serve as an “ice breaker” between the two countries. Since then, he has been invited by China to come to Beijing in a more formal capacity.

This background briefing will be a three-part series in which we will examine the countries with a direct stake in the outcome of the Spratlys dispute—China, the US, the Philippines, and other ASEAN states—and analyze their strategies in the conflict. We will look at what their interests are, what they seek to achieve, and what the underlying motivations are behind their actions.

Context

For much of the past two decades, the Spratlys dispute, while still a sensitive issue, was largely shelved by competing claimant states in an effort to foster stronger economic ties. Following the end of the Cold War, Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader of China, began implementing the ‘Four Modernizations’—a series of reforms that worked to open up the formerly closed off economy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the world. In 1992, China started a dialogue process with ASEAN, and in 1996, China became ASEAN’s full dialogue partner. In 1997, the first ASEAN-China Informal Summit was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, during which both sides announced the establishment of "a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighborliness and mutual trust."3

Throughout much of the ensuing two decades, economic relations between the regional block and the rising superpower began to flourish. The Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation was signed in November 2002, paving the way for the establishment of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area in 2010.4 This agreement essentially eliminated tariffs on 90 % of imported goods between China and ASEAN member states, leading to a surge in the amount of goods traded between them.5 As a result, China has gone on to become ASEAN’s largest trading partner, while ASEAN has become China’s third largest.6 The strong economic cooperation largely served to mask disagreement among claimant states over the contentious issue of the South China Sea.

"Under Xi Jinping's leadership, China has adopted a more aggressive foreign policy, becoming more forceful in asserting its claims in the East and South China Seas."

However, over the last decade, the situation has escalated, precipitated largely since Xi Jingping rose to become the Secretary General of the Communist Party in 2012. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, which left the United States’ economy in shambles, Xi saw an opportunity. He and his colleagues interpreted this event as the beginning of the slow and inevitable decline of the global hegemon, and saw in it an opening for China to undo its ‘Century of Humiliation’ and occupy a larger role on the world stage.7 Doing away with Deng’s mantra of “Hide your strength, bide your time,"8 Xi adopted a more aggressive foreign policy strategy, with China becoming more forceful and strident in asserting its claims in the East and South China Seas.9

This behavior alarmed China’s regional neighbors and compelled them to seek a greater United States presence in the region. Numerous East Asian states signed military pacts with the US, while those with existing pacts, such as the Philippines, sought ways to further strengthen them. These smaller states hoped that banding together with the US would serve as a counterweight to China’s rising military strength and prevent the latter from unduly throwing its weight around in the region. As Robert Manning of Foreign Policy put it, “Beijing’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea has led to bandwagoning and unprecedented security cooperation between Australia, Japan, the United States, and the maritime states of the region."10

China’s Grand Strategy

Although much has been made about the large reserves of oil and natural gas in the Spratlys chain of islands, analysts now increasingly believe that this factor as a driving force behind the conflict is “overrated."11 Indeed, an authoritative study conducted by the Energy Information Agency in the United States shows that much of the deposit of hydrocarbon resources in the area are actually closer to the coastlines of countries themselves—not the disputed areas.12 Instead, the motives behind China’s actions are ultimately the convergence of multiple factors.

Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science professor at De La Salle University who was interviewed for this article, cites three variables that explain China’s behavior: economic, military, and ideological.

Economic Considerations: More than the hydrocarbon reserves, China is mostly interested in the outsized pool of fishing resources available in the South China Sea. As mentioned earlier, the sea is home to 12% of the global fishery stock, and tens of millions of Chinese fishermen, particularly in the coastal provinces of Hainan and Fujian, rely heavily on these resources for their livelihood.

"The depletion of fishery stocks close to the Chinese mainland may explain China’s increasingly adventurous maritime militia."

Figure 1: Depleted Fish Stocks in the South China Sea13

Fisheries Overfished Areas 21018

Moreover, there is an increasingly urgent need in China to satisfy the growing dietary needs of its swelling population, as well as maintain its vibrant and thriving commercial fishing industry, which has become increasingly reliant on more exotic fishery resources.14 The depletion of fishery stocks close to the Chinese mainland may be a major motivation for China’s increasingly adventurous maritime militia, which blurs the lines between naval, coast guard, and civilian fishing activities.

Military Considerations: Since 2003, there has been a growing sense in China’s navy—which has become highly influential within Chinese political circles—of the need to have a greater presence across sea lines of communication, namely, the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. The reason for this is twofold. First, more than half of China’s global oil imports passes through these waters. Second, according to the World Bank, foreign trade accounted for 41% of China’s GDP in 2015, much of which goes through the South China Sea.15 As such, China increasingly believes it is imperative to strengthen its naval presence in the area in order to secure its “trade and energy interests."16 By dominating its adjacent waters, China believes it is merely following in the footsteps of other great superpowers, such as the United States when it dominated the Caribbean Sea, and the Roman Empire when it did the same with the Mediterranean.17

Ideological Considerations: Chinese schoolchildren are taught from a very early age that their ancestors have straddled these waters since time immemorial, and thus, the whole South China Sea rightfully belongs to them. In addition, the historical narrative within China claims that it has been the victim of a hundred years of humiliation, largely due to Western colonialism and Japanese expansionism. Consequently, there is a need for China to “shake off its past” and “restore itself to greatness."18 And part of that restoration includes reclaiming its “blue national soil”—the Yellow, South, and East China Seas.19 Xi has brilliantly leveraged these narratives to fan nationalist sentiment within the population, veering attention away from domestic issues, such as China’s slowing economy, and directing the peoples’ anger at external parties.

According to Heydarian, these three factors—combined with the growing belief of the US’ terminal decline and the growing power vacuum in the region—largely explain why China has become increasingly assertive in its territorial claims in the South China Sea.20 Hence, in the aftermath of its standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China has made a series of moves to strengthen its presence in the area and bolster its claims.

1. China has constructed a series of artificial islands out of several reefs in the South China Sea

  • According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, China has dredged sand to build artificial islands in Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef,21 the latter of which is located off the coast of Palawan.
  • Although Xi promised in September 2015 that China would not militarize these islands, satellite imagery shows that these islands contains airstrips, hangars, and towers, thus raising the possibility that they could be used to store military aircraft—including fighter jets and large transport aircraft—in the future.22

2. China has refused to participate in the arbitral proceedings initiated by the Philippines

  • In a position paper released in December 2014, China argued on procedural and substantive grounds that the ad hoc international tribunal in The Hague had no jurisdiction over the case. Jay Batongbacal, a law professor from the University of the Philippines, summarizes China’s case as follows:23
  • China asserts that the subject matter of the arbitration is ultimately one of sovereignty, which is outside of the court’s jurisdiction.
  • Even if the court could resolve the dispute without dealing with the question of sovereignty, it could not decide on the Philippines’ claims without first undertaking a maritime delimitation of the area, which it also has no capacity to do.
  • China had already invoked its right to optional exclusion from jurisdiction under Article 298 in its 2006 declaration when it signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), thereby making it immune from the Philippines’ lawsuit.
  • Additionally, China also argues that the Spratlys Island Group was not included in the list of territories Spain ceded to the United States in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, and so could therefore not lawfully constitute a part of Philippine territory.
  • Moreover, China asserts that the 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea states that any territorial disputes concerning claimant states ought to be solved through negotiated settlement, and thus, the Philippines’ unilateral action of taking China to court is in violation of international law.
  • The Hague court ultimately rejected China’s arguments and ruled that it had jurisdiction, prompting China to publicly boycott the case.

3. China has waged a relentless campaign of ‘soft power’

  • The PRC threatened to withhold developmental aid from its allies—mostly developing countries in Africa and the Middle East—if they do not issue public declarations supporting China’s position in the dispute.
  • China Daily, a Beijing-based newspaper, claims that as many as 66 countries publicly support China’s position, compared with only 5 for the Philippines: the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.24
  • However, independent analysts argue that these numbers are based on a very liberal interpretation of “China’s position” and a very conservative reading of that of the Philippines’.
  • The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative finds that as many as 40 countries support the Philippines’ position and only 6 that support China.25 Nevertheless, Chinese state-run media continues to wage an information warfare campaign to promote the idea that global opinion is on the side of China.

In summary, China’s interests in the South China Sea can be explained by its desire to secure fishing resources, assert its presence across sea lines of communication and trade and commerce, and consolidate its status as a rising superpower. Its strategy for doing so has been to bolster its military presence by constructing artificial islands with wartime capabilities along disputed waters, argue that it is the Philippines—not China—that is in violation of international law, and use soft power and a relentless propaganda campaign to attempt to turn the tide of international opinion in its favor.

This is the first installment in a three-part series analyzing the interests and strategies of the major countries involved in the South China Sea dispute. Read part two: U.S. Interests and Duterte's Detente here.||Read part three: ASEAN and the Economics of Influence here.

FOOTNOTES

1

Greer, Adam. "The South China Sea Is Really A Fishery Dispute". The Diplomat. N.p., 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.

2

Ma, Alexandra. "Here's What You Need To Know About The South China Sea Disputes". The Huffington Post. N.p., 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.

2

Ma, Alexandra. "Here's What You Need To Know About The South China Sea Disputes". The Huffington Post. N.p., 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016.

3

[1] Fu, Ying and Schicun Wu. "South China Sea: How We Got To This Stage". The National Interest. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

4

"Overview Of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations". ASEAN. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

5

"ASEAN-6 Zero Tariffs Take Effect Immediately". The Jakarta Post. N.p., 2010. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

6

"Overview Of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations". ASEAN. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

7

Manning, Robert and James Przystup. "How To Explain Xi Jinping’S Mounting Foreign-Policy Failures". Foreign Policy. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

8

"Loyal Party Members Urge Xi's Resignation". China Digital Times (CDT). N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

9

It is also worth noting that, at the time Xi took control of the Communist Party of China in 2012, he was heading the Standing Committee on Maritime Affairs, and his actions helped propel him to the Vice Presidency, and eventually, the Presidency. This suggests that the South China Sea issue is something in which he has a personal stake, and is therefore, unlikely to compromise.

10

Manning, Robert and James Przystup. "How To Explain Xi Jinping’S Mounting Foreign-Policy Failures". Foreign Policy. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

11

Heydarian, Richard Javad. Interview On The Spratlys Dispute. 2016. By Telephone.

12

Ibid.

13

Stratfor Enterprises,. The South China Sea's Depleted Fisheries. 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

14

Ibid.

15

"Trade (% Of GDP) | Data". World Bank. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

16

Heydarian, Richard Javad. Interview On The Spratlys Dispute. 2016. By Telephone.

17

Ibid.

18

Ibid.

19

"ASEAN-6 Zero Tariffs Take Effect Immediately". The Jakarta Post. N.p., 2010. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

20

Heydarian, Richard Javad. Interview On The Spratlys Dispute. 2016. By Telephone.

21

"China Preps Spratlys For Military Aircraft". Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

22

Ibid.

23

Batongbacal, Jay. "Arbitration 101: Philippines V. China". Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. N.p., 2015. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

24

Wang, Wen and Xiaochen Chen. "Who Supports China In The South China Sea And Why". The Diplomat. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

25

"Find Out Which Countries Are Taking Sides In The South China Sea". Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. N.p., 2016. Web. 25 Aug. 2016.

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