PLA and the South China Sea
Image Credit: IISS

PLA and the South China Sea


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.

March 19, 2013 at 20:29

Who the hell in the world would say he will use force to resolve dispute? But in the end of the day, this may happen as "the last resource". A famous saying: Don't hear what he says, see what he does.

June 20, 2012 at 06:09

@JC We had been good neighbors. Chinese-Filipino friendship day? Chinese here are not being marginalized and is fact one of the richest in the Philippines.

It is the behaviour and hubris of the Chinese, particularly the PRC. How can you literally claim Bajo de Masinloc when it is clearly within our EEZ and is 130+ mi from Zambales. What neighbor would actually honor such audacity and hubris, as claiming an entire Sea for yourself as your own sovereign territory.

Errol T
June 20, 2012 at 04:47

@JC again, after reading the other comments below, I can answer your question "Who can dive the deepest?"
If you mean who can fall the highest, that would be the civilization that lasted thousands of years. Apparently Confucian China hasn't recovered yet from the chaos of the 19th century. Instead of being morally superior, it has sunk to bickering and bullying its neighbors. Say what you will about America, but it's only a few hundred years old, a pale shadow to Chinese history.

Errol T
June 20, 2012 at 04:44

Actually, the whole event was barely touched by our major news media here. At best maybe a few mentions every week but that's it. Unlike our northern neighbor across the sea, w/c we prefer that way instead of having them off our shores, our media is making a point of NOT driving most of Filipinos into a nationalistic fury. The only ones who seem to be updated are the government, netizens, and quite a few people.

Errol T
June 20, 2012 at 04:41

We wouldn't take anything from within 200 miles of China's shores. The Chinese could return the courtesy.

Errol T
June 20, 2012 at 04:39

@JC, you did mention about American ships being sunk by missiles. Right now, the only Chinese missile that might have that capability is the DF21. You did not mention it explicitly, but you were saying it between the lines.

Errol T
June 20, 2012 at 04:37

So no more appeasement and bribery? Personally I would prefer trade agreements but if China's people wants war against its neighbors, it looks like we're in for another Pacific War.

silence tigger
June 20, 2012 at 01:47

To Errol T,
At high tide, the Huangyan Island does not submerge entirely under sea level; it is therefore a piece of land, claimable by a sovereign country as its territory. However, since it is inhabitable to human, the Huangyan Island only owns the 12 nm territorial water, but is not qualified as a base for claiming the up-to-200-nm EEZ surrounding it. Correct me if my above definition is inaccurate.
When Philippines gained its independence in 1946, the Huangyan Island was clearly marked as not part of its territory. At the same time, the then China's ROC government had claimed that the Huangyan island is part of its territory, with historical evidence. To me, even without any evidence of historical ownership, China's claim would still be totally legit, because the island belonged to no other country at the time, thus whoever called it first owns it. There was no such thing as EEZ back then.
EEZ ownership is based on land ownership, not the other way. Using EEZ in backward to change ownership of a land within does not make any sense to me.
As I see it, the Huangyan Island and 12 nm water surrounding it belongs to China. Beyond 12 nm, it is Philippines’ EEZ, unless there are competing claims based on other lands nearby. If the Chinese fishermen were within the 12 nm of the island, or in fact inside the lagoon of the island, Philippines had no right to do anything upon them.

June 20, 2012 at 00:34

I would have added one other observation.  Gen Ma is one of a handful of generals who will speak without notes.  He likely had a response planned, but to speak without reading from a piece of paper in public is extremely rare. That likely indicates the positions he states has been agreed to and is unlikely to change.

Kimbo Y. Laurel
June 19, 2012 at 22:57

@John Chan. Bribing people will not work for it just buy more enemies than friends in the long run. If people within their country realized that their leaders is being bribed by outside infuences, the people will be disgust and remove their leader and the government from the rule of the country. Look at Iran,Vietnam and Cuba as an historical example. If PROC bribes neighboring  countries, they have more problem on the people of the country. Do not just watch out on the leaders but the people as well. The people has longer lasting influences than their leaders.

June 19, 2012 at 11:07

The South China Sea are international waters a lot of commerce pass in this area of the world. I think It would be beneficial for China to keep this waters neutral for trade! This idiotic idea of gun boat diplomacy and using the Chinese Navy to bully your neighbors is non sense in the end this will backfire and put China in a very bad position in the near future. And don’t use the reason that the US is been doing this for a long time your a 5000 year old civilization act like your an adult. The PLA’s action is giving us Chinese living in other countries a hard time.

China should get real friends and ASEAN is that friend instead of that insane North Korea, that thug Russia,that fundementalist Pakistan, and that murderer Syria. A lot of Chinese blood flow in the ASEAN countries especially in the Philippines and Vietnam.

June 19, 2012 at 07:17

Since we are taking about law the Bajo de Masinloc is located in the EEZ of the Philippines it is 137mi from Zambales.

Now, the Chinese should leave it alone and peace will ensue. You nine-doted line is an example of Chinese hubris. Who in the right mind would accept that line?

June 19, 2012 at 07:14

I know, that’s why I’m trying to tell you, your country is claiming a shoal 137mi from our Main Island of Luzon. That is still our EEZ you may pass but to harvest the resources there that was allocated for us is absurd.

Errol T
June 19, 2012 at 05:46

I’d agree that the BRP Gregorio del Pilar was a poor choice for the arrests, since it is under the Philippine Navy and not the Philippine Coast Guard, but those arrests had to be made since the Philippines claims Scarborough Shoal under it’s EEZ and as such, has to defend Filipino’s fishing rights.

Errol T
June 19, 2012 at 05:43

Correction. We do not agree to the nine-dotted line. We do not violate what we see is ours.

Errol T
June 19, 2012 at 05:41

To be clear, Scarborough Shoal is not being considered as part of the Philippines’ territory, but as part of the Philippines’ EEZ.

June 19, 2012 at 04:40

@John Chan,
Because Vietnam, the Philippines and most of the world do not respect jungle law.

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