China Building on Scarborough Shoal? Don't Hold Your Breath.


For over six months now, speculation has been rampant that China is gearing up to begin land reclamation (or, more accurately, island building) at Scarborough Shoal, a disputed feature in the South China Sea roughly 355 km west of Manila. In March, U.S. Navy chief Admiral John Richardson said the United States had observed “survey type activity” around Scarborough that could be a precursor to reclamation. A month later, South China Morning Post added fuel to the fire by citing an anonymous source “close to the PLA Navy” as saying that China would carry out reclamation work at Scarborough “within this year.”

Speculation grew after an arbitral tribunal ruled heavily in the Philippines’ favor in its suit against Chinese claims and actions in the South China Sea. Some analysts argued that China might penalize Manila for the case (and the ruling) by building on Scarborough – but only after China finished hosting the G20 summit in Hangzhou. And China did send a number of ships to Scarborough during the summit, but contrary to initial rumors they were fishing (and likely maritime militia) vessels, not dredgers.

The summit is over now – so, will China build? Looking at the diplomatic signals from China, and the current situation in the South China Sea, I’d argue it’s not likely, at least in the immediate future.

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First, there’s the diplomatic context. China has consistently held up the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) as the blueprint for handling the disputes. China even formally recommitted itself to the Declaration in a joint statement issued with ASEAN after a foreign ministers meeting in Vientiane, Laos on July 25. The statement reaffirmed “that the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) is a milestone document that embodies the collective commitment of the Parties to promote peace, stability, mutual trust and confidence in the region.” ASEAN and China also (re)committed themselves “to the full and effective implementation of the DOC in its entirety.”

Why does that matter for Scarborough? After all, many critics have accused China of repeatedly violating the DoC through its large-scale island building and construction activities in the South China Sea. At issue is the rather vague pledge that the parties will “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” The catch is that what constitutes a complication or escalation of the disputes is in the eye of the beholder – and for that matter, so is “self-restraint.” China has repeatedly insisted that its construction doesn’t constitute escalation, and that its own actions are simply necessary countermeasures to other claimants’ moves. Beijing’s insistence that the projects are meant to provide public goods for all regional countries may ring hollow outside China, but it does provide Beijing with enough diplomatic cover to say it is not in violation of the DoC. (Ironically, China has no issue with arguing that other claimants’ construction and land reclamation projects do, in fact, violate the DoC.)

There is, however, one action that is explicitly pointed to in the DoC as off-limits: “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features.” Signatories have thus specifically undertaken to refrain from establishing a presence on currently uninhabited features as part of their commitment to “exercise self-restraint.” China may bend the rules beyond recognition, but to begin land reclamation and construction at Scarborough Shoal would be as clear cut a violation of the DoC as is possible for that vague, non-binding agreement.

China’s current strategy relies on exploiting the ambiguities in the DoC and in China’s verbal commitments (for instance, Xi’s pledge not to militarize the Spratlys, where militarization apparently does not include the construction of facilities with both military and civilian applications). There is no ambiguity in the pledge not to inhabit previously uninhabited shoals – of which Scarborough is one. For that reason, there is a vast diplomatic difference between reclamation at Scarborough and reclamation on features like Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef, where China had outposts before construction.

Further, China specifically went out of its way to highlight its commitment to the DoC at the July ASEAN-China foreign minister’s meeting. That commitment was reemphasized at the recent summit meeting between President Xi Jinping and his ASEAN counterparts. The joint statement issued after the summit also contains a point reaffirming both sides’ commitment to the DoC and another point specifically welcoming “the adoption of the Joint Statement of the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and China on the Full and Effective Implementation of the DOC.”

In effect, then, this means China has publicly committed itself to not inhabit or physically occupy Scarborough Shoal twice in high level statements in the past two months by reaffirming the commitment made in the DoC. If Beijing planned to turn around and begin construction on Scarborough immediately after the conclusion of the Hangzhou summit, these ASEAN-China statements would be a needless diplomatic embarrassment – more than that, they would do serious damage to China’s reputation by undermining explicit commitments made multiple times in international meetings. Simply put, China’s two most recent joint statements with ASEAN make absolutely no sense if Beijing is really planning on building structures on Scarborough in the next months.

What, then, to make of the supposed Chinese sources that claim Beijing is ready to make its move on Scarborough? In part, just like China sending Coast Guard and maritime militia fleets to the shoal, it may simply be useful posturing. China knows the diplomatic costs of starting construction at Scarborough, but would also find it strategically useful to keep the threat in play for deterrence purposes.

However, the strategic situation has changed drastically since early reports of Chinese survey activity in March. On May 9, the Philippines – the other claimant to Scarborough – elected Rodrigo Duterte president. He assumed office on June 30, replacing Benigno Aquino III, who had adopted a hardline stance toward China and pursued even closer military relations with the United States, the Philippines’ ally. Duterte, by contrast, has repeatedly signaled his openness to doing business with China; his administration has even downplayed the arbitral tribunal ruling (the conclusion to a case initiated by Aquino). Meanwhile, Duterte has also signaled his ambivalence toward Washington and his relationship with Obama got off to a rocky start, to say the least.

In this context, there’s little geopolitical incentive for China to build on Scarborough. Doing so would push Duterte, a potential partner, to respond – likely by upping anti-China rhetoric and following Aquino’s lead in deepening cooperation with the United States. For China, building on Scarborough made sense with Aquino in office; the messaging, however, is all wrong for Duterte.

China knows exactly how serious a step it would be to start reclamation at Scarborough. In a recent speech on U.S.-China strategic philosophy, Jin Canrong of Renmin University warned that “from the day we begin filling in Huangyan [Scarborough] to the day we finish, this will be an extremely tense time… this is an immense, historic risk.” To Jin, reclamation at Scarborough could be the beginning of the decisive U.S.-Chinese battle (literal or not) for influence in the region.

Jin predicted that China would take this step, but not until 2018. Further, the specific timing would meet certain criteria – Jin predicts that China will pick a time when Washington is heavily focused elsewhere in the world. Interestingly, he also speculates that China will “prepare some gifts to give the United States” on other issues like “North Korea, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan” – issues where the United States has long hope for more Chinese cooperation. Neither of those conditions are in place at the moment.

Reclamation at Scarborough is not a move Beijing would take lightly, particularly given its diplomatic commitments not to undertake such a project. As of now, the conditions aren’t right for such a move; China stands to lose more diplomatically than it would gain strategically from an outpost on Scarborough. Conditions, of course, change, particularly in the South China Sea – but construction in 2016, as South China Morning Post’s source predicted, seems less and less likely.

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