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.

John Chan
June 19, 2012 at 03:45

Did anybody mention about DF21? Why are you so obsessed with it? Is it really on the American’s nerve? If you are as confident as you brag, why doesn’t the Pentagon share your believe? Why does USA need to put more assets in Asia to compensate its potential losses? As well it is dispersing its assets too?

USA is thousands miles away on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, inherently USA cannot stay in Asia for long; British, French, Japanese, German, Spanish, and Portuguese are the examples, they all have to leave despite reluctantly, USA will NOT be the exception. American Exceptionalism is a fallacy, and the earlier the American realizes that the less agony the American needs to go through.

BTW which nation can dive deepest?

John Chan
June 19, 2012 at 03:21

@Kimbo Y Laurel,
Kantilya said in state affairs, no direct neighbour is good neighbour; the only good neighbour is subdued neighbour. You can ask the American to confirm such truism.

Kantilya also said “the enemy’s neighbour is our natural ally.” The hostility displayed toward China in Asia from Japan all the way to India just proves again he was wise.

Kantilya said you can use Sanman (Appeasement) and Dana (Bribery) to buy temporary peaceful coexistence with your neighbouring nations, but these two methods are ineffective and short term, because such approach is a sign of weakness and only encourages greedy demands and aggressions from the neighbours. History is littered with such examples. Even the current farce in the SCS is a replay of Kantilya’s wise conclusion.

It seems China’s leadership has not read Kantilya’s words; they are still trying to use Sanman and Dana to lure China’s neighbours. Despite decades of hard work to rejuvenated their economies after being devastated by the IMF, World Bank, American, Japanese, British, etc. in the last Asia Financial Crisis engineered by those imperialists.

The earlier China’s leadership read Kantilya’ words, the earlier China is going to take a more realistic approach to deal with those inherent enemies of China.

John Chan
June 19, 2012 at 02:34

The Philippines and Vietnam know the nine-dotted line is China’s core interest, why don’t they respect it? Instead they have to violate it. Now they are being stopped by the sheriff, instead of backing off and obey the law and order, these two rascals is yelling and crying non stop, is it another bad habit picked up from the world largest bully? Never admit fault and always blame others?

Breaking law will end in jail, even Al Capone ended in jail, the world biggest bully will be ended in Jail as well as its lackeys like Philippine and Vietnam.

June 19, 2012 at 02:24

DF21 at most is just a bogeyman to India, Japan, ASEAN but not to the USN at least for now.Before you can ‘see’ their ships on the high seas, all of your ‘missiles’ have been taken out. So don’t think of threatening, coercing and bullying other countries as a means to get your end. There will be no hegemon in the Asia-Pacific, not China, not any country else!

June 18, 2012 at 22:32

General Ma said « FOR THE MOMENT », this means the option of using force is not off the table. It could be used as “last resort”, but what does “last resort” mean? Would the use of force by the PLAN in 1974 and in 1988 against Vietnam be considered as “last resort”?

Another indication of what “last resort” means: the sentence, published on the website of China’s Ministry of Defense, May 10th: “Our point is that not only the Chinese government but also the Chinese military will not agree if there is anyone who tries in vain to violate the sovereignty over the Huangyan Island”. The warning was clear and not to the Philippines side only. The “dotted line” is ALSO the PLA’s “core interest”, NOT something that the Chinese government could decide alone. As a “last resort”, the generals reserve the right to use force.

June 18, 2012 at 22:31

If a group of people forced there way into your house and refused to leave I would highly doubt this author would regard them as “peaceful” just because they didn’t actually kill someone. China put the Philippines in the position of having to use force to evict the fisherman and the govt. vessels. The issue at hand is not whether China intends to act peacefully but whether they intend to steal other country’s territories. What would happen to your neighborhood if people were allowed to just invade your home “peacefully” and then just stay?

June 18, 2012 at 15:46

This is an objective view. The articles I’ve read before were just trying to defame China, describing China as the aggressor in the region. I’ve mentioned the fact a lot of times – the Philippines used warship named BRP Gregorio del Pilar at the first place; they were the actual aggressor and trouble maker.

June 18, 2012 at 10:20

Don't believe what china said. Watch what they do.
Proven history – since the creation of the ccp, china is the ONLY one that attacked other nations in the South of china Sea. It is a fact. But china is too coward to attack Russia, Japan, and Britain.

June 18, 2012 at 04:26

This article focuses on statements of a military official, presents these statements as some sort of official state policy and misses the whole big issue: that of China making a ridiculous claim over a large body of ocean that is defined by international law as belonging to other countries. While a common resolve by all disputants to avoid a military solution should be a good first step, respect for jointly-accepted international law would be still another big step. And an even bigger step would be use of common sense. 

John Chan
June 18, 2012 at 02:43

It seems somebody is stilling living in the age of WWI, ship to ship battles. It is 21st century now, wars are fought in multiple degrees, land, sea, air, space, IT, etc. If American thinks like this blogger, their ships are going to be sent to the bottom of sea by missiles in no time.

Kimbo Y. Laurel
June 18, 2012 at 00:28

@ Frankie Fook-lun Leung. You are right that it is not wise that PROC will declare war in the South China Sea because many countries will take the response of the situation like increase of military arm in the Asian regiom, formation of military coalition and increase of fervor of nationalism as mean to counter against the PROC. If PROC wants to win the war, it is better to prevent it through compromise and develop a better relationship with its neighbor but I have personal doubt on the government of PROC because they will use force as a mean to maintain their interest to stabilize the country and their nationalism is difficult to deal with. Sometimes, nationalism is a form of moral irrationalty to put interest of its own people before others even though I do have sense of national responsibility for the Philippines. 

June 17, 2012 at 20:40

Mr Fravel, General Ma said « FOR THE MOMENT », didn’t he? “For the time being” means what it means, that the option of using force is not off the table.
Being an expert in decrypting China military language, Mr Fravel could perhaps tell us what “last resort” means? China always use force as a “last resort”? Like in 1974, in 1988 (and not counting 1962)!?
The “last resort” should be put in the context of power struggle at the head of China state. This is could be the meaning the sentence, published on the website of China’s Ministry of Defense, May 10th: “Our point is that not only the Chinese government but also the Chinese military will not agree if there is anyone who tries in vain to violate the sovereignty over the Huangyan Island”.
The warning from the generals was clear and not to the Philippines only. The “dotted line” should not be interpreted ONLY as China’s national interest. It is ALSO the PLA’s “core interest”.  Perhaps, that all it is, that all it has always been, since 1947.

June 17, 2012 at 18:26

Generals Ma and Liang conveniently waited until the pain of the US pivot and regional "partnershipsa", aka the noose,  permeates their psych before they can utter with toned down voices.

June 17, 2012 at 18:00

Whether China resorts to use of force or not, it can still very easily be considered a David versus Goliath situation for the Philippines.  China simply hopes to cower the surrounding nations, with military build-up and economic power, into giving up. 
Whether China resorts to use of force or not, its claims will remain ridiculous under cusomary international law, and under UNCLOS.  Threat of force is all China has to back up its claim.  If they are intent of claiming the entire sea South of China as sovereign Chinese territory (They have stated as much, we should take them at their word, they are a 5000 year old Civilization afterall and deserve that respect), they are intent on use of force. 

June 17, 2012 at 17:36

Tell Yahoo or any Philippine media to reprint this, and they'd beg off saying there was no more space or time on the print queue.  

June 17, 2012 at 16:14

Everyone would say using of force is the last resort. Wars still take place. Hope no one has to use force!

June 17, 2012 at 13:22

137 miles distance is very good.  For countries on land, the border is right on the line, with zero distance separation. BTW, UNCLOS territorial limit is limited to 12 nautical miles.

June 17, 2012 at 12:20

This is well and good that there will not be a use of force during his term. The problem continues that China is laying a claim to couple of rocks that shows during low tides and disappears on high tides as part of it's territory add to this it is within 137 miles from Zambales known as Panatag Shoal or it's Spanish Name as Bajo de Masinlóc.

This constitutes a threat especially to the Philippines that a foreign power can own a body of water 137 miles from our shores, added with the mere fact that we are an archipelago and we rely mostly on the waters for our transportation and food source.

Frankie Fook-lun Leung
June 17, 2012 at 09:46

Sun Tze's Art of War:  How to win a war without fighting.  China's PLA navy is no match to the US.

June 17, 2012 at 08:48

For the first time, an accurate and rational view of China policy towards the SCSis presented.
All other media efforts are to paint it as a David versus Goliah situation trying to get symphathies for the Philippines, a stalking horse for the US.

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