In September, President Xi Jinping committed in public in the company of U.S. President Barack Obama that China would protect international shipping in the South China Sea and not militarize the dispute in the Spratly Islands. (See the White House record here, with some apparent stumble by the interpreter.) As discussed previously by me in The Diplomat, Xi was clearly referencing the Spratly Islands, not the Paracel Islands, and not the South China Sea writ large. Recent deployments by China of small numbers of military systems and aircraft in the Paracel Islands have prompted U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, among many others to doubt the commitment.
To begin to investigate what Xi might understand by militarization in the Spratly Group or how China as a government might view militarization in the South China Sea, as opposed to just the Spratly Islands dispute, we should first understand the geography of the South China Sea.
According to the U.S. Department of State, China’s nine-dash line encompasses about 2 million square kilometers of the South China Sea area, which is commonly represented at 3.5 million square kilometers (twice as big as the Gulf of Mexico and 50 percent bigger than the Mediterranean Sea). In terms of share of China’s coastline, the South China Sea occupies one third of China’s mainland coastline of around 18,000 kilometers (Guangdong 4,300 kilometers and Guangxi Zhuang 1,500 kilometers). In addition the island of Hainan presents a significant additional coastline in the South China Sea (1,500 kilometers). Taken together, China has about the same length of coastline in the South China Sea as does Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.
China’s territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea encompass a mere 13 square kilometers of land area. As the U.S. State Department concedes, China does not claim the area within the nine-dash line as its territory. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, China only claims those rights that are compatible with the Law of the Sea Convention. These include historic rights, but under international law, such rights are only those unambiguously recognized by long practice of other states as lawful.
Definitions of the English word “militarize” range from giving an activity or organization a military character (with even a small number uniformed personnel or equipment) to a “process by which a society organizes itself for military conflict and violence.” I can only assume that the same differentiation exists in Chinese.
The Spratly Island dispute has long since been militarized by all parties and even non-parties, starting in 1939. Japan annexed the islands in that year, having invaded China’s Hainan Island, and used one of the Spratly island for (very) low level support of naval operations. In 1946, the Republic of China sent a warship to (re)claim the islands. Since 1971, the Philippines has regularly sent armed forces to the islands. In 1975, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam sent soldiers to occupy other islands. In 1978, Malaysia sent military personnel to occupy several islands. In 1988, the People’s Republic of China used its military forces to attack Vietnam’s military personnel on one semi-submerged reef, and then proceeded to station military personnel on up to nine submerged or semi-submerged reefs by building the artificial islands it has only recently expanded massively.
At all times since 1956, claimants in physical occupation of any feature in the Spratly group had a military presence of some sort there. For example, according to one source writing in 1999, the Philippines “currently has 595 marines stationed on eight islands … fortified with heavy artillery … equipped with radar facilities, a weather station, and ammunition depots.” China has always staffed its Spratly outposts with military personnel and will probably continue to do so.
So Xi’s commitment in 2015 about the Spratly Islands could not have meant China would not station soldiers or military equipment there, or that other countries should not do so. It more likely meant that from that point on, China would not be the first side to organize its armed forces there for a military confrontation over the islands.
The significance of this commitment is that China will continue to show restraint on use of military force against other claimants (unless provoked). Beyond that, the commitment should not be overstated.
That said, Xi and China do judge the entire South China Sea to be militarized to a degree already and ripe for a potential military clash. But they are not shaking in their boots. This is typical “border clash” stuff, low level, and low intensity, not the material for major power confrontation. For China, the more likely site of military confrontation in the South China Sea will be Taiwan. The Chinese government will not do in anything in the South China Sea that will detract from its ability to react militarily to a Taiwan crisis.
For China, the peak times of militarization of the South China Sea look very different, almost peaceful, compared with times past.
For example, as an 11-year old, Xi would have read in several Chinese sources about how, on August 1964, a U.S. destroyer sailed from Taiwan into the Gulf of Tonkin (which abuts the coasts of Vietnam and China) and came under attack from North Vietnamese forces, probably retaliating for CIA involvement in South Vietnamese raids. The attack and its aftermath became known as the Tonkin Gulf Incident when, according to a U.S. assessment, “high [U.S.] government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public about events that led to full U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.”
The U.S motivation in the Tonkin incident was a response to the fact that China had been giving North Vietnamese communists substantial military aid for over a decade. This was the year China tested its first atomic bomb, which led to Taiwan launching a nuclear weapons program. At the time, the United States was storing nuclear weapons in the Philippines, and the United States considered (as a contingency only) a nuclear attack on China. From that time on, in the South China Sea and on China’s doorstep, the U.S. Navy was taking a major role in bombing campaigns and ground support in the Vietnam War. It mined Haiphong harbor, threatening Chinese commercial shipping.
Some years later, Xi’s first serious political job after graduating from Tsinghua University at the age of 26 was as Secretary to the Chinese Minister of Defense, Geng Biao. He started this job just after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, for which Deng Xiaoping appears to have got a green light from the United States. After China withdrew, it continued to bombard Vietnam in several locations across the border for at least six years. Some sources estimate that tens of thousands of civilians were killed by the Chinese invading forces. As a result of the Chinese invasion, Vietnam provided access to the Soviet Navy for its use of Cam Ranh Bay and the South China Sea became an arena of great power confrontation again.
For these reasons, among others, when Xi uses the term militarization in respect of the Spratly Islands or the South China Sea, he is probably thinking of something more than a few non-violent incidents at sea, deployments of a small number of surface to air missiles, minor military deployments in which no shots are fired and where no people die, or neat (if correct) American international legal arguments about occasional innocent passage of their warships in China’s territorial sea and exclusive economic zone.
Thus, Xi’s commitment not to militarize the Spratly dispute may have been more obfuscating than helpful given the hysterical international atmosphere on the South China Sea.