PLA and the South China Sea
Image Credit: IISS

PLA and the South China Sea

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In early June, an article in the New York Times quoted a TV interview with Gen. Ma Xiaotian, a Deputy Chief of the General Staff in the People’s Liberation Army.  The Times, however, did not discuss the most interesting part of what he said.  The rest of the interview illuminated China’s strategy in the South China Sea, especially an emphasis on avoiding the militarization of the dispute.

As seen in the video, the interview was impromptu.  A Phoenix TV reporter was following General Ma down a hallway at a conference on cyber security in Beijing.  General Ma was speaking off the cuff, without prepared remarks.  The reporter’s question was cut from the web clip, but here’s Ma’s full response (my rough translation):

“The question you ask is very sensitive.  We have the ability to defend our waters, but at the moment we have still not prepared to use military force to go defend [our waters].  If we were to do so, it would be as a last resort.  Now we are still conducting bilateral talks, using diplomatic means and some civilian [ie, law enforcement] means to resolve the conflict.  This way is the best."

This statement by one of China’s top generals is noteworthy for several reasons.  To start, contrary to rumors that swirled in mid May, the interview suggests that Chinese forces in the Guangzhou Military Region and South Sea Fleet had not been placed on alert during the standoff over Scarborough Shoal.  An alert by definition would include preparations to use force.

In addition, Ma’s statement indicates that a broad consensus exists among top party and military leaders to emphasize diplomacy and avoid militarizing the disputes in the South China Sea.  Such a consensus was displayed when Defense Minister Liang Guanglie also underscored the importance of a diplomatic solution to the standoff in a meeting in late May with his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin.  Although PLA-affiliated media commentators such as Major General Luo Yuan have called for China to adopt a more forceful response, uniformed officers such as Ma Xiaotian and Liang Guanglie have not.    

Finally, Ma’s statement highlights a central feature of China’s strategy in the South China Sea.  During the latest round of tensions, which began in around 2007 and accelerated between 2009 and 2011, China hasn’t used its naval forces to actively press its claims against other states.  Instead, China has relied on diplomacy and vessels from various civilian maritime law enforcement agencies, especially the State Oceanic Administration’s China Marine Surveillance force and the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Command.  The emphasis on using maritime law enforcement agencies to maintain a presence in disputed areas suggests a deliberate effort to cap the potential for escalation while asserting China’s claims. 

Of course, China will continue to assert its claims.  But the PLA’s support for a diplomatic approach and limiting the potential for escalation should be noted.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

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