Features | Security | Southeast Asia

China’s Not-So-Hard Power Strategy

Questions remain over how the Scarborough Shoal standoff will finally be resolved. But recent events should have reassured China’s leaders that hard power isn’t always necessary.

By Trefor Moss for

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story originally posted yesterday to take into account unfolding events in the Scarborough Shoal area.

First it was all over. Then it wasn’t.

After more than two months of angry confrontation over Scarborough Shoal, a remote cluster of islets in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines had finally appeared this week to have brought their phony war to a belated conclusion.

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs had confirmed, according to Inquirer.net, that all ships from both sides had left the Shoal’s lagoon by June 23. It had earlier looked as though China had turned down a golden opportunity to end the dispute by declining to follow Manila’s lead in using the onset of the typhoon season as a convenient excuse for going home. China still appeared reluctant to confirm officially that it, too, had actually left, however, and by June 28 Manila said it was seeking clarification over reports that some Chinese vessels had returned. Beijing should rethink this latest decision and recall its ships: If it does, it can now look back with some satisfaction on a campaign well managed.

After Scarborough Shoal, Chinese leaders should be more convinced than ever that not-so-hard power is the appropriate solution to maritime disputes like this one. In fact, Beijing had been reported to be so impressed with the way events unfolded – because Chinese interests have been safeguarded without the need for violence – that it is formulating an updated maritime strategy based on the ‘Scarborough Model’. A top-ranking official may even be given oversight of maritime security after the upcoming leadership reshuffle.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Beijing has embraced no-so-hard power because it must walk a delicate line in handling its arguments in the international arena. Deploying the superior forces of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), though arguably justified by the Philippines’ use of a naval frigate, would only have served to condemn Beijing in the court of international opinion as having recklessly upset East Asia’s applecart. Yet a purely diplomatic response would equally have condemned Beijing in the court of domestic opinion, with nationalists demanding nothing less than tough action wherever sovereign pride is at stake.

Fortunately, Beijing has an intermediate option – an increasingly impressive array of not-so-hard power tools in the form of the country’s numerous civilian or paramilitary maritime law enforcement agencies.

The media has tended to overlook the remarkable build-up that these agencies have been undergoing: the PLAN’s new aircraft carrier and nuclear submarines are a lot sexier than humble patrol boats, after all. But the growth of maritime agencies like China Marine Surveillance (CMS), the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) and the Maritime Safety Agency (MSA) – the three organizations that sent ships to Scarborough Shoal – has been much more aggressive than that of China’s navy. According to Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the U.S. Navy War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute who has studied China’s white-hull fleets, the expansion of China’s coast guard-like agencies has been “extremely rapid’, while the country’s naval build-up has been “moderate” in comparison.

These agencies have hundreds of vessels between them, most of them small and unarmed. What’s new is the development over the last decade of a core of much larger, more modern ships that are capable of staying at sea for longer, of travelling further, and of carrying helicopters. There are also suggestions that China is planning to lightly arm more of these ships. Traditionally, CMS and FLEC – the two agencies that seem to have been tasked with handling maritime disputes – used unarmed vessels. However, the new FLEC ship that confronted the Philippine Navy was lightly armed with deck-mounted machine guns. There are also unconfirmed suggestions that CMS may begin lightly arming some of its larger ships.

None of this should alarm China’s neighbors: it signals a reassuring intention to keep the PLAN’s powder dry and to manage disputes with civilian ships that are, at most, only lightly armed. This is all part of a new Chinese foreign policy approach of “reactive assertiveness”: the idea is that China doesn’t pick fights, but that if someone picks a fight with China it will offer a forceful response. It has also been called “non-confrontational assertiveness”, and this perhaps is the smarter term because it captures the manner in which China reacts assertively while, as at Scarborough Shoal, still showing significant restraint.

This policy has the senior leadership’s endorsement, just as the decision to use CMS and FLEC ships, rather than military vessels, at Scarborough Shoal must have come from the top, says Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Northeast Asia Project Director at the International Crisis Group.

“This is so high-profile now. It’s highly unlikely that these agencies are freelancing because it’s become a major international issue: the government must have approved it,” she says. The appearance of restraint is strengthened by the observation that Beijing didn’t overplay its hand in using the Philippines dispute as a convenient distraction from the political circus surrounding Bo Xilai. Admittedly, the media and some government figures attacked Manila verbally, and extracted some propaganda value from the Scarborough incident; but at the scene of the dispute China’s response remained measured.

Some Chinese nationalists remain unimpressed by the application of not-so-hard power. The decision to send fisheries enforcement vessels and unarmed surveillance ships instead of an overwhelmingly powerful naval flotilla was weak, they felt, and the move drew harsh criticism from hawkish netizens. Similarly, when Vietnam passed a new Maritime Law last week in which it reaffirmed its claims to the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands, some Weibo users turned their virtual fire not on Hanoi but on Beijing, accusing China’s leaders of encouraging Vietnamese boldness through their kid-gloves treatment of the Philippines.

Beijing is painfully aware that, while these people might be extreme in their views, they can’t be ignored: in fact, the regime’s survival is dependent on its keeping on the right side of Han nationalism. In the end, Beijing did enough at Scarborough Shoal. They safeguarded China’s dignity, by not ceding territory and by preventing the arrest of its fishermen. Only Weibo’s wackiest fringe could have really demanded war.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

However, the countries that dispute territories with China should be under no illusions that while Beijing’s preference is for not-so-hard power, the hard power of the PLAN remains a viable policy option from China’s perspective. By deploying a military ship to Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines made a serious tactical blunder: it came close to forcing China to abandon its new model and opt for a military solution. Similar miscalculations in future could provoke a hard-power response.

Encounters of the kind that has just concluded safely, after two months of tension, are only going to become more and more frequent in the overfished South China Sea; and as the region’s fishermen grow ever angrier, as they find their living increasingly difficult to come by, those encounters will unavoidably become potential flashpoints.

By adopting the Scarborough Model and expanding its white-hull fleet, China deserves credit for furnishing itself with a toolkit with which to deal with these disputes forcefully, but non-militarily. That reduces the likelihood of conflict. But at the same time, the countries confronting China at sea must remember that the nationalistic gallery that Beijing plays to has no love for not-so-hard power solutions. They must not give China cause to abandon them.