China's Island Strategy:
Image Credit: Flickr (Al Jazeera English)

China's Island Strategy: "Redefine the Status Quo."


The most striking feature of China’s behavior in its maritime disputes this year has been efforts to redefine the status quo.  In its disputes with the Philippines and Japan, China has used the presence of its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies to create new facts on the water to strengthen China’s sovereignty claims.

Before April 2012, neither China nor the Philippines maintained a permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Fishermen from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and China operated in and around the large reef.  At times in the past, especially in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Philippine navy had arrested Chinese fishermen who were inside the shoal.  Since then, Chinese patrols have sailed by the shoal, but no effort has been undertaken to exercise effective control over the shoal or its surrounding waters.

The situation changed following the standoff over sovereignty of Scarborough Shoal.  The standoff began in April 2012 when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating in the shoal’s lagoon.  After receiving a distress call, two China Marine Surveillance (CMS) vessels arrived on the scene, blocking the entrance to the lagoon and preventing the arrest of the Chinese fishermen.  After the fishing boats left the shoal, however, government ships from both sides remained to defend claims to sovereignty over the shoal.  By the end of May, China had deployed as many as seven CMS and Bureau of Fisheries Administration ships.

In early June, the Philippines announced that an agreement had been reached with China for a mutual withdrawal of ships.  Although China never publicly confirmed the existence of such an agreement, ships from both sides left in mid June as a typhoon approached the area.  Later, however, Chinese ships returned and appear have maintained a permanent presence in the waters around the shoal since then.  In mid July 2012, for example, an intrepid news crew from Al Jazeera videotaped an attempt to visit the shoal, only to be turned away by a combination of CMS and fisheries administration vessels.  China has also roped off the sole entrance to the lagoon inside the shoal to control access to it. 

Before the standoff, China had no permanent presence at Scarborough Shoal.  Three months later, China had effective control of the shoal and the surrounding waters, thereby altering the status quo in this dispute in its favor.  As an editorial in the Global Times noted, China has “directly consolidated control” of the shoal.

A similar dynamic is underway in the East China Sea over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands.  Before the Japanese government’s purchase of three of the islets from a private citizen in September 2012, Chinese government ships had generally avoided entering the 12 nautical mile limit of Japan’s territorial waters around the islands.  As I wrote several years ago, China and Japan appeared to have a tacit agreement from the mid-2000s to limit the presence of ships and citizens near the islands in an effort to manage the potential for escalation.

In September 2010, the detention of a Chinese fishing captain whose boat had broached the 12 nautical mile limit and then rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship sparked a crisis in China-Japan relations.  Part of China’s response included increasing the number of patrols by marine surveillance and fisheries vessels near the islands.  Most of the time, these boats remained beyond Japan’s 12 nautical mile territorial waters around the Senkakus or crossed this line only briefly.  China in practical terms continued to accept Japanese de facto control of the islands and their associated territorial waters (over which a state enjoys sovereignty rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).

After the purchase of the islands last month, however, China has abandoned this approach. China first issued baselines to claim its own territorial waters around the islands and then began to conduct almost daily patrols within its newly-claimed waters – directly challenging the Japanese control that it had largely accepted before.  The purpose of the patrols is two-fold: to demonstrate that the purchase of the islands will not affect China’s sovereignty claims and to challenge Japan’s position that there is no dispute over the sovereignty of the islands. 

Although China does not control the waters around the Senkakus (unlike the situation at Scarborough), it no longer accepts de facto Japanese control.  On October 31, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman asserted that a new status quo had been created.  After describing China’s new patrols as “routine,” Hong Lai stated that “the Japanese side should face squarely the reality that a fundamental change has already occurred in the Diaoyu Islands.”

In both cases, China responded to challenges to its claims with an enhanced physical presence to bolster China’s position and deter any further challenges.  These responses suggest an even greater willingness to pursue unilateral actions to advance its claims.  In neither case is a return to the status quo ante likely.

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 15, 2013 at 15:29

Cairo never refers to Senkaku/Diaoyu! Well, both PRC and ROC have claimed that Diaoyu is historically part of Taiwan islands. Yet, this is how that they are attempting to histort history. The Qing documents prove that the Manchu dynasty never counted Diaoyu as part of the world under the direct control of the Son of Heaven. Let's say that Japan made the first claim on the islands in 1905! At that time, the dynasty had not been overthrown yet, as everyone knows.

November 15, 2012 at 13:33

Maybe if China doesn't want people intefering in its zone, it should practice what it preaches.
China has sent an armada of sophisticated and highly subsidised fishing boats into the South Pacific, including waters north of New Zealand, in a bid to kill off domestic fleets and seize control of the longline tuna fishery, a key fishing industry conference has heard.
Fiji Tuna Boat Owners Association head Russell Dunham told the Auckland forum that no one will talk about what Beijing is doing and nor will they say anything to China.
"It is the same with the Fiji government, same with Pacific governments, same with the New Zealand government; no one is game to say anything."
Figures from the Forum Fisheries Agency obtained by Fairfax Media show this year there had been a 125 per cent jump in the size of the China South Pacific tuna fleet, with many of them just built.
The agency says there are 241 China-flagged vessels approved to fish, ahead of Taiwan with 221.
Dunham said South Pacific boats could not compete against the Chinese.
"I think they have agenda, an agenda to control the whole Pacific longline industry. Once we die out maybe they will not have subsidies."
Dunham said the Chinese did not care about the economics of albacore tuna fishing at this stage. Each Chinese boat received US$300,000-$400,000 (NZ$370,000-$490,000) a year from the state, irrespective of whether they fished.
New boats were built virtually for free and Chinese boats received an additional subsidy if they sent their catch to China for processing.
Making matters even worse, if a Fiji-flagged boat sent a tuna to China it would attract a 25 per cent duty. The same tuna caught in the same place by a Chinese boat would enter duty free.
"Something has to be done about subsidised fleets," Dunham said.
"They don't live in the real world and they don't care about cost and they don't care about quality."
The Chinese are catching poorer quality fish and sending it into the same markets as tuna caught by Pacific states to undercut it.
"It is a difficult thing to face up to the might of the foreign fleets," he told the conference sponsored by the government's Pacific Co-operation Foundation and the Pacific Islands Tuna Industry Association.
High seas tuna access is controlled by the multinational Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and Dunham says they will ultimately determine quotas by catch histories.
If the Chinese can show they have had more boats fishing for tuna, they will be entitled to the greatest number of quotas.
"That is what they want, total control," he said.
"Some one has to tell china to be a responsible fishing nation.

November 10, 2012 at 23:08

Two things: First, this article jumps to conclusions based only on recent escalations of conflict and in a wrong way, not taking in consideration any dynamics and factors in the region in such a complex issue! It is nothing more than pure Western propaganda!. Secondly, in order to evaluate this disputes we need to take into consideration at least 6 points or perspectives: 1 the domestic development of all claiments, 2 the international system's power shifts, 3 the legal point of view or UNCLOS although the super power US has not yet ratified it+ it is often misunderstood to have authority to solve disputes and in fact it is just a platform for claimants to solve disputes only, mind the word only, if all claimants submit disputes together, 4 historical perspective – who was first to claim, 5 the US role, 6 the value of the see itself and how vital is it to China and to Japan as SLOC, who depends sensitively and who is vulnerable if the SLOCs are blocked.
Having said that, I want to assure you that although I am Western I strive for objectivity and conclusions based on factual, logical and rational reasoning rather than one's vage opinion regardless how many PhD's one has.
My stand is in favour of China because it's nothing but fair. Let's look at the facts: China after the World War II was given certain territories back as a victor, the then nationalist/republican government drew a map of 11 dashes, ater down to 9, claiming it as own. Because there was no UNCLOS China claimed the water and the islands. After the civil war the CCP continued the claim so Taiwan and China today have exactely the same claim. Now at the time no country showed objections to China's claim rather later on whenVietnam was forming merging North South and decided to claim also the whole sea. Then the UN created the UNCLOS and Malaysia, Philippines and Brunai claimed territories or EEZs too. Then this are some of the facts. claims and claims. So when the Philippines unilaterally decides to arrest fishermen in contested waters the Philippines is an agressor! In East China sea when Japan decided to announce the purchase of the Senkaku Islands unilateraly althou neither China nor Taiwan have ever stoped claiming these island it is clear that Japan is the agressor and violater of the status quo. China has not used power and has no intention to do so because it is not PLAN that is responsible for these disputes. If you look at the structure and the agencies in China you will find that the responsible body to deal with the issues is not the army itslef. Why would you take the side of the Philippines based on UNCLOS? The UNCLOS is making things more complicated, has no authority because even the US has not ratified it and if we take the claim of the Philippines as valid it is just a claim it does not give any right to the Philippines to arest anyone untill the dispute is settled and sovereignty assigned= through bilateral or multilateral negotiations. Multil;ateral negotiations have failed = ASEAN didnt issue closing statement the DOC was not followed. Nevertheless, blaming sides to be agressive only makes things worse. Till the disputes have been negotiated and settled sides should refrain from unilateral actions as in the case of Japan and the Philippines. Bottom line is in disputed waters states should refrain to act offensively till disputes exist and they all know China's claim because it was first there – the nine -dashed line after the Second World War! So why provoke China? Why destroy the status quo? Only insecure, greedy, and puppets regimes surving other's intererests would challenge China hoping for China to slip and for them to take advantage of the situation. Based on the whole complexity, facts and defensive realism theory I predict that China will succeed to defend its claims without major military escalation unless under harsh circumstances like being left without choice when other states use military means. Finally, I love freedom of expression and my democracy but don't forget that we have it in order to express it fairly and not to blame others for things they have not done even if they have ideology that we don't like! In this case it is unfair to blame China for agressor when China is exercising exactly the opposite!

Sean Ramos
November 7, 2012 at 19:08

Fravel’s book “Strong Borders Secure Nation” clearly shows Vietnam initiated the conflict. China did participate and I would hesitate to paint them as the victim but Vietnam almost certainly fired first both times,70s and80s. Please don’t act like you’re universal genius anymore, some people actually research this.

Leonard R.
November 6, 2012 at 18:17

Leonard R. has actually been in uniform – in war. And as such, he understands some things are worth fighting, killing and dying for. The west coast of the Philippines is one of them. Taiwan is not..
But if there are Chinese warships or even Chinese fishing boats at the Scarorough Shoal – they need to be sunk or they need to leave forever. Putin knew what he was dong. It's time for the world to learn from his example. 
Yes  - it is about protecting American citzens and American territories in that part of the world. That's why that little shoal matters to the US. And that's why the Philippines is worth going to war with China over. 

November 5, 2012 at 18:09

Yes, China choose to ignore international laws when is convenient for them, Tibet, Vietnam-Islands, Indian-china war where India lost a lot of territory, now the the Phillipinnes. How China would feel if phillipines fishermen would violate its economic zone. China wasn't complaining about the Senkokus Islands until they found out there might be some oil, even though, it has been in japanese hands since 1895, using wwII and japanese atrocities as compensation, even though japan already paid a lot for his mistakes, 2 atomic bombs, japan completlly destroyed. Every single time China has a conflict with his neighbours, they solve the situation by force or by the threat of force

November 5, 2012 at 10:46

China has realized that the South Koreans can get away with occupying Takeshima (Dokdo) based upon (at best) shaky "historical claims" – and neither Japan nor the US of A punish Seoul for such illegal behaviour. Should Washington kick the Koreans off Takeshima, Beijing will behave.

November 5, 2012 at 02:04

Japan did not succumb to right wing extremists. Japan purchased the islands for precisely the opposite reason. To prevent Ishihara from further damaging Sino-Japan relations. If Ishihara had bought the islands who knows what he would have done, Japan blocked this purchase to try and save it's relations with the Chinese and maintain the status quo; Japan already rented the islands to aim to prevent anyone going there and the purchase was an extension of that policy. 

Greggory Gregson
November 5, 2012 at 01:53

Some of the posters above are cherry picking the facts. China occupied the Paracel islands in 1974, the Spratley islands in 1988 and is slowly moving to establish control over Scarborough Shoal. The pattern was already visible 10 years ago (, but China has been expanding its control over the South China Sea in accordance with the expansion of its naval capabilities, using infringing fishing trawlers that continue to extend their activities ever further in order to legitimize its military actions domestically and abroad.

Greg, your arguments on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute do not hold. First of all the only legal change happened under Japanese law, transferring ownership of three islands from Japanese citizens to the Japanese state in order to actually prevent Ishihara from stirring up the conflict. This would not have any implications under international law. Furthermore, there was and is no agreement with China. There is a disagreement, but no recognition by the Japanese government of this disagreement.

Relevant map:

Be Way
November 5, 2012 at 00:58

Very nice of you to think of using Philippines as America first line of defense.    When will you, your ugly kind, ever wake up and smell the sweet scent of the morning dawn that Asia is more peaceful and prosperous without the rogue U.S regime around creating trouble in Asia.

November 5, 2012 at 00:33

The standoff began in April 2012 when the Philippine navy prepared to arrest Chinese fishermen who were operating in the shoal’s lagoon.

A similar dynamic is underway in the East China Sea over the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands

Has China forbid or arrest any fishmen from other nationals in the south China sea?
And where is that "similar dynamic" with China-Japan dispute over Diaoyu islands?
I fail to see any significat similarity between those two disputes, other than both came close after the US public statement of "Pivot back to Asia" strategic shift early this year.
So who is really redefining the status quo after over a decade of failed military advantures beyond the Asia Pacific region?

November 4, 2012 at 13:21

Yo !, In the end someone has the gut to stand up for the true story about wht is actually happening in South china and East China sea.

November 4, 2012 at 13:18

Seems these message boards are increasingly only WuMaosters exchanging thier copy and pasted arguments and "opinion guidance" 

Guns & Propaganda
November 4, 2012 at 10:22

I think you just blew your brain and mouth, leotard.  I don't think China is afraid of the US.  Not especially when it comes to territorial sovereignty. It is the US warships which will most likely be blown out of the water. Washington minions will not be allowed to steal Chinese properties.  This is Chinese sphere.  Get used to it.
A shame to see paid mouthpieces like you voicing over for your master as part of your master's detestable global propaganda sleaze.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief