China is achieving its foreign policy objectives without firing a shot.
Unprecedented? Or perhaps even refreshing? For the first time,
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying, in response to a question posed during the ministry press conference on April 9 about Chinese land reclamation around the Meiji Reef (or Mischief Reef, also claimed by the Philippines) said that the work conducted has “the main purposes of optimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China’s international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas.” She added that following the construction
able “to provide all-round and comprehensive services to meet various civilian
demands besides satisfying the need of necessary military defense. The maritime
areas in the China South China Sea, where shipping
lanes criss-cross and fishing grounds scatter around, are far away from the
In addition, a “common public goods” spin was offered, with Hua stating that “civilian functions and facilities will be included in the construction for ships to take shelter, and for navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation and forecast, fishery service and administration, so as to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea.”
A Positive Move?
Some commentators (for example, see here and here) regarded this official clarification in a positive light. Generally, the key points they raised can be summarized as follows.
First, the Chinese move to clarify the activities reflect increased transparency on the thorny
South China Sea
issue. What is noted is that
has not only officially admitted that the construction activities will be used
for military purposes but it has also highlighted a humanitarian dimension as
Second, thess commentators argue that island construction does not reflect Beijing’s offensive intention toward other countries because it is deemed “unwise and even stupid for China to go around conquering other smaller nations like it is still the 19th century,” further pointing out that war offers significantly fewer benefits in the era of globalization, and other more effective means can be used to enhance one’s national power.
Third, attention is also drawn to the overall Chinese foreign policy. The old argument made by both the Chinese government and scholars is that
would not risk its domestic developmental trajectory for limited foreign policy
Finally, it was pointed out that China is proceeding with the construction activities with speed and scale because it happens to possess the resources, manpower, and technology necessary for the job. It was argued that other countries, if they had similar resources, would do just the same.
These points deserve scrutiny.
#1: Looking beyond the humanitarian smokescreen… islands carry wider military-strategic ramifications.
Whether or not the “islands” can be used for military or civilian purposes is a moot point as far as
or other claimants are
concerned. In fact, pre-existing features even without land reclamation already
serve dual roles in varying degrees. But expanding small features such as reefs
and shoals into large artificial islands is a game-changer. With larger
terrestrial spaces, these reclaimed islands become more versatile – capable of
accommodating a whole array of functions, promoting habitability and greater
sustainability of presence. The military-strategic significance of the islands grows
correspondingly. For example, the airstrip on the Malaysia-occupied Swallow
Reef (which was expanded through land reclamation) facilitates tourism and
military activities in times of peace and contingencies, respectively. China
Despite phenomenal growth in Chinese military and force projection capabilities, especially with the induction of new long-range platforms,
continues to face
constraints in certain areas, most importantly in long-range aerial maritime
surveillance and patrol assets. Without the ability to project an appreciable
force size for sustained durations far from mainland bases, it will be
difficult to maintain a constant presence in the Beijing South
China Sea. This is a prerequisite not just for the enforcement of
sovereignty claims but also for unimpeded and unchallenged resource access in
the disputed waters. The islands in effect constitute forward staging bases
that allow the “shorter-legged” Chinese patrol assets to replenish and turnover
with new crews so as to reduce the requirement to return to mainland bases.
Land reclamation and subsequent fortification of the islands present a fait accompli to the other claimants, akin to what James Cable in his seminal work Gunboat Diplomacy would classify as a form of definitive application of coercion at sea. True, no force has been applied akin to what happened between the Chinese and Vietnamese navies back in 1988. But that does not mean the move is any less destabilizing. In fact, non-violent means can also entail potentially far-ranging consequences.
In the past, whenever the Chinese erected sovereignty markers on the contested shoals or reefs, Philippine Navy frogmen could easily demolish them as a means to counter
claims. But artificial islands are another matter altogether. There is no way
the contending claimants can reverse the situation. One simply cannot demolish
artificial islands in the same way one can remove stone markers. The only
feasible way to physically overturn this fait accompli is to capture the
islands. But no other claimant would dare risking this Falklands-style
#2: No war of conquest but an alternative means to undermine another actor’s interests?
In the present context, the overt use of force to territorially annex another country is foolhardy. But undermining another country’s interests does not necessarily have to involve launching a major invasion using military forces. A variety of non-violent and less overt alternative means can be used to achieve the same foreign policy outcomes.
In fact, on the day after the official elaboration of the Chinese intent behind the construction work, Hua responded to U.S. President Barack Obama’s concerns that
was using its “sheer size and
muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” The official line is
nothing unusual, again a repetition of the same old premise: “ China China firmly upholds and promotes peace and
stability of the South China Sea.” Ironically,
one could argue that overall stability in the South China Sea has been
maintained because the other claimants have by and large desisted from
destabilizing moves. Beijing
#3: Reap limited foreign policy dividends while minimizing the potential consequences.
It is true that it would seem foolhardy to derail one’s socioeconomic development for the sake of limited foreign policy objectives. But a point to note is that the potential political and socioeconomic fallout of assertive behavior can be anticipated so that action can be calibrated to still attain those foreign policy objectives. This requires one to carefully choose the right target, the right time, and the right means. The Philippines (and in fact, any of the Southeast Asian claimants for that matter) is no Great Britain, which decided to contest the attempted fait accompli by Bueno Aires with its invasion of the Falklands Islands in 1982.
simply lacks the wherewithal to
retaliate against or oppose Chinese transgressions. This also means that Manila Beijing, unlike , can secure limited
foreign policy objectives without any obvious repercussions. Argentina
From the 1990s until recently,
has enjoyed consistent socioeconomic
development while from time to time displaying belligerence. What Beijing has simply needed
to do is target weaker claimants unlikely to respond vigorously, so that the
fait accompli can be achieved without ever having to fire a single shot. It is
a gamble, because no policymaker can ever fully anticipate a response, just as
the Argentine military junta was unable to foresee Beijing ’s response in 1982. But at
least as far as the Philippines is concerned, Beijing has managed to
successfully pull off several advances – Mischief Reef in 1995 and 1998, Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and Second Thomas Shoal in 2014 – none of which brought much
beyond diplomatic protests. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed
between Britain Manila and had little deterrent effect. Washington
It is a risky gamble but so far Beijing appears comfortably confident that it can still bet on the power asymmetry in the South China Sea and on the cautious, prudent responses on the part of selected targets who choose not to further “rock the boat” by desisting from more vigorous countermeasures.
unanticipated, stern response to the oil rig incident off the last May is a rare exception.
Subtly, carefully timed aggression against the right target pays dividends,
even in today’s globalized context. Paracel Islands
#4: Does more power necessarily mean greater belligerence?
Would other claimants have done what
if only they possessed similar resources? To be fair, enhancing physical
control in disputed waters is not behavor exclusive to China . Some
Southeast Asian claimants have also spruced up their occupied features. But the
question really focuses on exploiting power advantages against weaker
contenders. And there are examples to suggest that having more power at one’s
disposal does not necessarily translate into greater belligerence. China
a stronger country that chooses not to exploit the power asymmetry against its
smaller neighbour, as seen in the successful
international arbitration of the Bangladesh-India maritime boundary dispute
by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2009-14. India India’s
evident self-restraint in the fishery dispute with another smaller neighbour – – is
another example. In fact, despite the power asymmetry Sri Lanka Colombo
appears more belligerent than – threatening to shoot transgressing foreign fishermen and
having no qualms detaining any who cross the International Maritime Boundary
The Chinese hovernment has the option to exercise its power advantage in whichever way it deems fit, for better or worse. In reality,
elected to harness its unmatched resources to up the ante. It is not just one
feature being reclaimed. To date, the systematic, large-scale reclamation and
construction work carried out on multiple features by Beijing is
unprecedented and has no parallel with any other claimants. With the power
advantage at its disposal, China Beijing can carry out
its activities virtually unopposed in the South China Sea.
Overused Policy Lines
Without fully addressing the full extent of
ambiguous claims in the South China Sea, including clarifications regarding inconsistences
of the dashed line, repeated assurances that rehash overused policy lines
will most likely fall on deaf ears for some, or at best sustain the persistent
unease and scepticism. Worse, the assurances might be a smokescreen while Beijing China’s strenthens its grip over the South China Sea. Only with the claims clarified is it
possible for conflict management tools can the proposed Code of Conduct to
progress meaningfully. Best of all, one may even see more hope for an eventual
peaceful settlement, using ’s
preferred bilateral approach or otherwise. China
Until that happens,
latest clarification will not likely quell the scepticism. Instead, more
questions may arise. Many will ask whether and when Beijing Beijing
will put a halt to its activities in the South China Sea,
and what its military and coastguard will do following the consolidation of
their logistical positions to sustain physical presence in the area.
But the question should be: Will we witness the intensification of
coercive behaviour at sea with its ever-growing forces? Recent instances of China Beijing’s gunboat diplomacy, such as the case of the
Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, do not augur well for its future
behavior, especially if emboldened by strengthened physical leverage in the South China Sea and the relative self-restraint of other
truly clarifies its claims in the South China Sea,
it is difficult to be sanguine about the future. Notwithstanding Beijing’s call to exclude external interference in the
disputes, concerned claimants that can never hope to stand up to China’s overwhelming power will continue to seek
external countervailing assistance in the South China Sea.
Any optimism that Beijing may moderate its behavior in the South China Sea is
at best tentative and shrouded with uncertainty. Meanwhile, some of the
claimants that have been on the receiving end of Chinese coercion are facing
domestic pressure to reciprocate, for instance with major land reclamation and
construction activities of their own. This potential for escalation is the
worrisome part, and is certainly nothing to relax about, not only for the
claimants but also for the wider international community.
[Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.]