The Return of China’s Small-Stick Diplomacy in South China Sea
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

The Return of China’s Small-Stick Diplomacy in South China Sea

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Associated Press reporter Christopher Bodeen chooses his words well in a story on China’s latest bid to rule offshore waters. Beijing, he writes, is augmenting its “police powers” in the South China Sea. That’s legalese for enforcing domestic law within certain lines inscribed on the map, or in this case nautical chart.

The Hainan provincial legislature, that is, issued a directive last November requiring foreign fishermen to obtain permission before plying their trade within some two-thirds of the sea. Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon supplies a map depicting the affected zone. It’s worth pointing out that the zone doesn’t span the entire waterspace within the nine-dashed line, where Beijing asserts “indisputable sovereignty.”

A few quick thoughts as this story develops. One, regional and extraregional observers shouldn’t be too shocked at this turn of events. China’s claims to the South China Sea reach back decades. The map bearing the nine-dashed line, for instance, predates the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It may go back a century. Nor are these idle fancies. Chinese forces pummeled a South Vietnamese flotilla in the Paracels in 1974. Sporadic encounters with neighboring maritime forces — sometime violent, more often not — have continued to this day. (See Shoal, Scarborough.) Only the pace has quickened.

Henry Kissinger notes that custodians and beneficiaries of the status quo find it hard to believe that revolutionaries really want what they say they want. Memo to Manila, Hanoi & Co.: Beijing really wants what it says it wants.

Two, Bodeen’s police-powers terminology is apt. Lawyers define the police power as a twofold thing. It means enforcing order on national territory, in the usual sense of the word police. And it means helping provide for the health, welfare, and morals of the people. The new rules fall into the former category. China is trying to enforce its laws in waters and islands over which it asserts sovereignty, as though the question of sovereignty is a done deal. And it is using non-military assets, not the PLA, to punctuate its message that there are no legitimate challenges to Chinese jurisdiction.

This is what I’ve been calling “small-stick diplomacy” for the past couple of years. China’s small stick — the China Coast Guard and other law-enforcement instruments — outmatches Southeast Asian militaries by most measures. So why not police contested sea areas with inoffensive-seeming vessels while holding the big stick, the PLA, in reserve should things go wrong? If no one pushes back effectively, you create a new normal over time.

Three, in all likelihood Hainan lawmakers’ diktat presages no challenge to freedom of navigation, the stated U.S. interest in the region. Chinese spokesmen take pains to disavow any such challenge. But for them, navigation means navigation and nothing more. Barring foreign fishing vessels from select areas means compelling their home governments to accept Chinese domestic law in waters under dispute. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? In effect Beijing wants foreign shipping, private and publicly owned, to obey the same rules the law of the sea ordains for the 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. That’s the offshore belt where the coastal state’s laws and regulations apply with the same force they do ashore. This adds up to selective access denial. China, that is, will make the rules governing access to seas it deems its own — and others will comply.

But four, the South China Sea is a huge waterspace for any force to police. Bodeen estimates the area covered by the new rules at 1.35 million square miles. That’s five times the land area of Texas. And everything’s big in Texas, as denizens of that state will tell you (over and over again). Readers of these pixels are familiar with J. C. Wylie’s axiom that the man on the scene with a gun — Wylie’s metaphor for armed assets of various types — is the true guarantor of control over a given territory. Does China boast enough seagoing policemen to monitor what’s happening throughout two-thirds of the South China Sea, and shoo away or apprehend those who defy Chinese law? Color me skeptical.

Which means enforcement efforts may be scattershot, PLA assets may have to pick up the slack for law-enforcement services, or both. Deploying military assets to police supposedly sovereign islands and waters would crimp the narrative that China exercises indisputable sovereignty there. So would widespread disobedience.

It’s hard to envision Southeast Asian governments — heck, any government with a stake in the maritime order — accepting what Beijing is pushing. What if China passed a law and no one obeyed? We may see.

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