Beijing’s Fait Accompli in the South China Sea

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Beijing’s Fait Accompli in the South China Sea

China is achieving its foreign policy objectives without firing a shot.

Beijing’s Fait Accompli in the South China Sea
Credit: REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Unprecedented? Or perhaps even refreshing? For the first time, Beijing has offered a more elaborate clarification about its recent activities in the South China Sea.

Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying, in response to a question posed during the ministry press conference on April 9 about Chinese land reclamation around the Meiji Reef (or Mischief Reef, also claimed by the Philippines) said that the work conducted has “the main purposes of optimizing their functions, improving the living and working conditions of personnel stationed there, better safeguarding territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, as well as better performing China’s international responsibility and obligation in maritime search and rescue, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine science and research, meteorological observation, environmental protection, navigation safety, fishery production service and other areas.” She added that following the construction China will be able “to provide all-round and comprehensive services to meet various civilian demands besides satisfying the need of necessary military defense. The maritime areas in the South China Sea, where shipping lanes criss-cross and fishing grounds scatter around, are far away from the landmass.”

In addition, a “common public goods” spin was offered, with Hua stating that “civilian functions and facilities will be included in the construction for ships to take shelter, and for navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation and forecast, fishery service and administration, so as to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea.”

A Positive Move?

Some commentators (for example, see here and here) regarded this official clarification in a positive light. Generally, the key points they raised can be summarized as follows.

First, the Chinese move to clarify the activities reflect increased transparency on the thorny South China Sea issue. What is noted is that China has not only officially admitted that the construction activities will be used for military purposes but it has also highlighted a humanitarian dimension as well.

Second, these commentators argue that island construction does not reflect Beijing’s offensive intention toward other countries because it is deemed “unwise and even stupid for China to go around conquering other smaller nations like it is still the 19th century,” further pointing out that war offers significantly fewer benefits in the era of globalization, and other more effective means can be used to enhance one’s national power.

Third, attention is also drawn to the overall Chinese foreign policy. The old argument made by both the Chinese government and scholars is that Beijing would not risk its domestic developmental trajectory for limited foreign policy objectives.

Finally, it was pointed out that China is proceeding with the construction activities with speed and scale because it happens to possess the resources, manpower, and technology necessary for the job. It was argued that other countries, if they had similar resources, would do just the same.

These points deserve scrutiny.

#1: Looking beyond the humanitarian smokescreen… islands carry wider military-strategic ramifications.

Whether or not the “islands” can be used for military or civilian purposes is a moot point as far as China or other claimants are concerned. In fact, pre-existing features even without land reclamation already serve dual roles in varying degrees. But expanding small features such as reefs and shoals into large artificial islands is a game-changer. With larger terrestrial spaces, these reclaimed islands become more versatile – capable of accommodating a whole array of functions, promoting habitability and greater sustainability of presence. The military-strategic significance of the islands grows correspondingly. For example, the airstrip on the Malaysia-occupied Swallow Reef (which was expanded through land reclamation) facilitates tourism and military activities in times of peace and contingencies, respectively.

Despite phenomenal growth in Chinese military and force projection capabilities, especially with the induction of new long-range platforms, Beijing continues to face constraints in certain areas, most importantly in long-range aerial maritime surveillance and patrol assets. Without the ability to project an appreciable force size for sustained durations far from mainland bases, it will be difficult to maintain a constant presence in the South China Sea. This is a prerequisite not just for the enforcement of sovereignty claims but also for unimpeded and unchallenged resource access in the disputed waters. The islands in effect constitute forward staging bases that allow the “shorter-legged” Chinese patrol assets to replenish and turnover with new crews so as to reduce the requirement to return to mainland bases.

Land reclamation and subsequent fortification of the islands present a fait accompli to the other claimants, akin to what James Cable in his seminal work Gunboat Diplomacy would classify as a form of definitive application of coercion at sea. True, no force has been applied akin to what happened between the Chinese and Vietnamese navies back in 1988. But that does not mean the move is any less destabilizing. In fact, non-violent means can also entail potentially far-ranging consequences.

In the past, whenever the Chinese erected sovereignty markers on the contested shoals or reefs, Philippine Navy frogmen could easily demolish them as a means to counter Beijing’s claims. But artificial islands are another matter altogether. There is no way the contending claimants can reverse the situation. One simply cannot demolish artificial islands in the same way one can remove stone markers. The only feasible way to physically overturn this fait accompli is to capture the islands. But no other claimant would dare risking this Falklands-style counterstroke.

#2: No war of conquest but an alternative means to undermine another actor’s interests?

In the present context, the overt use of force to territorially annex another country is foolhardy. But undermining another country’s interests does not necessarily have to involve launching a major invasion using military forces. A variety of non-violent and less overt alternative means can be used to achieve the same foreign policy outcomes.

In fact, on the day after the official elaboration of the Chinese intent behind the construction work, Hua responded to U.S. President Barack Obama’s concerns that China was using its “sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions.” The official line is nothing unusual, again a repetition of the same old premise: “China firmly upholds and promotes peace and stability of the South China Sea.” Ironically, one could argue that overall stability in the South China Sea has been maintained because the other claimants have by and large desisted from challenging Beijing’s destabilizing moves.

China is significantly stronger today than it was in the 1990s. Yet while it has evinced more willingness to contribute to public security goods and become more “open,” it has also become more assertive in recent years. Compared to the 1990s, China is less predisposed to exercise self-restraint, and is prepared to intensify its application of coercion using its growing array of resources at its disposal. Indeed, the Chinese military has largely receded to the background, providing “recessed deterrent” backup for the civilian maritime law enforcement agencies that are the mainstay workhorses for Beijing in the South China Sea.

#3: Reap limited foreign policy dividends while minimizing the potential consequences.

It is true that it would seem foolhardy to derail one’s socioeconomic development for the sake of limited foreign policy objectives. But a point to note is that the potential political and socioeconomic fallout of assertive behavior can be anticipated so that action can be calibrated to still attain those foreign policy objectives. This requires one to carefully choose the right target, the right time, and the right means. The Philippines (and in fact, any of the Southeast Asian claimants for that matter) is no Great Britain, which decided to contest the attempted fait accompli by Bueno Aires with its invasion of the Falklands Islands in 1982. Manila simply lacks the wherewithal to retaliate against or oppose Chinese transgressions. This also means that Beijing, unlike Argentina, can secure limited foreign policy objectives without any obvious repercussions.

From the 1990s until recently, Beijing has enjoyed consistent socioeconomic development while from time to time displaying belligerence. What Beijing has simply needed to do is target weaker claimants unlikely to respond vigorously, so that the fait accompli can be achieved without ever having to fire a single shot. It is a gamble, because no policymaker can ever fully anticipate a response, just as the Argentine military junta was unable to foresee Britain’s response in 1982. But at least as far as the Philippines is concerned, Beijing has managed to successfully pull off several advances – Mischief Reef in 1995 and 1998, Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and Second Thomas Shoal in 2014 – none of which brought much beyond diplomatic protests. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed between Manila and Washington had little deterrent effect.

It is a risky gamble but so far Beijing appears comfortably confident that it can still bet on the power asymmetry in the South China Sea and on the cautious, prudent responses on the part of selected targets who choose not to further “rock the boat” by desisting from more vigorous countermeasures. Vietnam’s unanticipated, stern response to the oil rig incident off the Paracel Islands last May is a rare exception. Subtly, carefully timed aggression against the right target pays dividends, even in today’s globalized context.

#4: Does more power necessarily mean greater belligerence?

Would other claimants have done what China is doing if only they possessed similar resources? To be fair, enhancing physical control in disputed waters is not behavior exclusive to China. Some Southeast Asian claimants have also spruced up their occupied features. But the question really focuses on exploiting power advantages against weaker contenders. And there are examples to suggest that having more power at one’s disposal does not necessarily translate into greater belligerence.

Take India, a stronger country that chooses not to exploit the power asymmetry against its smaller neighbour, as seen in the successful international arbitration of the Bangladesh-India maritime boundary dispute by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2009-14. India’s evident self-restraint in the fishery dispute with another smaller neighbour – Sri Lanka – is another example. In fact, despite the power asymmetry Colombo appears more belligerent than New Delhi – threatening to shoot transgressing foreign fishermen and having no qualms detaining any who cross the International Maritime Boundary Line.

The Chinese government has the option to exercise its power advantage in whichever way it deems fit, for better or worse. In reality, Beijing has frequently elected to harness its unmatched resources to up the ante. It is not just one feature being reclaimed. To date, the systematic, large-scale reclamation and construction work carried out on multiple features by China is unprecedented and has no parallel with any other claimants. With the power advantage at its disposal, Beijing can carry out its activities virtually unopposed in the South China Sea.

Beijing has repeatedly attempted to assure neighbours of its peaceful development-based foreign policy and defensively oriented defense policy – with the express intent of assuring others that China’s accumulation of power does not translate into aggressive intentions. Yet Beijing’s activities so far suggest that its actions differ markedly from its rhetoric.

Overused Policy Lines

Without fully addressing the full extent of Beijing’s ambiguous claims in the South China Sea, including clarifications regarding inconsistencies of the dashed line, repeated assurances that rehash overused policy lines from Beijing will most likely fall on deaf ears for some, or at best sustain the persistent unease and skepticism. Worse, the assurances might be a smokescreen while China’s strengthens its grip over the South China Sea. Only with the claims clarified is it possible for conflict management tools can the proposed Code of Conduct to progress meaningfully. Best of all, one may even see more hope for an eventual peaceful settlement, using China’s preferred bilateral approach or otherwise.

Until that happens, Beijing’s latest clarification will not likely quell the skepticism. Instead, more questions may arise. Many will ask whether and when Beijing will put a halt to its activities in the South China Sea, and what its military and coastguard will do following the consolidation of their logistical positions to sustain physical presence in the area.

But the question should be: Will we witness the intensification of China’s coercive behavior at sea with its ever-growing forces? Recent instances of Beijing’s gunboat diplomacy, such as the case of the Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal, do not augur well for its future behavior, especially if emboldened by strengthened physical leverage in the South China Sea and the relative self-restraint of other claimants.

And until China truly clarifies its claims in the South China Sea, it is difficult to be sanguine about the future. Notwithstanding Beijing’s call to exclude external interference in the disputes, concerned claimants that can never hope to stand up to China’s overwhelming power will continue to seek external countervailing assistance in the South China Sea. Any optimism that Beijing may moderate its behavior in the South China Sea is at best tentative and shrouded with uncertainty. Meanwhile, some of the claimants that have been on the receiving end of Chinese coercion are facing domestic pressure to reciprocate, for instance with major land reclamation and construction activities of their own. This potential for escalation is the worrisome part, and is certainly nothing to relax about, not only for the claimants but also for the wider international community.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.