From increasing land reclamation activities to expanding military infrastructure and capacities, many international observers have expressed concerns over China’s “militarization” of the South China Sea. However, some have neglected the tendencies which actually witnessed a shift toward to opposite policy direction — the “civilization” of China’s military presence on the disputed islands. This trend will have profound implications for China’s foreign policy in the region, and deserves more attention from policymakers and scholars.
The increasing civilian elements of China’s South China Sea military presence are part of China’s grand strategy to integrate military and civilian capacities nationwide. On January 8, a new industrial alliance on strengthening military-civilian integration was established in Beijing, supported by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. This alliance will create a cooperative platform to build up China’s military industrial capacity, drawing on resources from both state-owned defense companies and private companies.
Earlier this year, the Party issued a special circular on integrating military capacity building and economic development. The circular called for using market forces to optimize military resources nationwide, and actively guide private investment and technology to serve defense purposes, which in return will provide long-term economic development. Resources will be pooled and shared between military operations and civilian activities.
In particular, the circular mentioned the implications for China’s maritime policy. According to the document, China will integrate its national interests in the territorial integrity of its oceans and economic exploitation of marine resources, and gradually form a joint force pooling the resources of the Party, state, military, police, and citizens to safeguard its maritime borders.
These plans are not only on paper; Beijing is already taking real-world steps toward these ends. A closer examination of China’s current activities in the South China Sea shed light on China’s integrated military-civilian strategy and its implications for the maritime disputes.
To legitimize the legal status of these islands domestically, China took an important step in July 2012, when it announced Sansha as a provincial-level city in Hainan Province. According to China, Sansha City has jurisdiction over the Paracels, Spratlys, and other disputed features. By legalizing the administrative status of these islands in its political system, China has set up a solid legal basis at home to claim territorial sovereignty against competing claims from Vietnam and the Philippines. Notably, the city government of Sansha is located on Yongxing (Woody) Island in the Paracels, which is also a center for China’s growing military capacity in the region.
The international legal status of Sansha City may face more challenges after an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against China’s sweeping maritime claims. However, the set-up of a provincial-level city in Sansha has different implications domestically and is a substantial step toward making China’s military actions more “civilianized.” Intriguingly, the disputed islands, under Sansha’s leadership, are increasingly branded as a popular destination to attract patriotic tourists and private investors.
China plans to transform some of the islands into vacation destinations for domestic tourists. The local government has already launched public campaigns in the media, urging Chinese tourists to join the patriotic-themed cruise tours to these islands. On December 21, 2016, A new ship called Dream of the South Sea embarked on its first four-day cruise from Sanya City, on Hainan, to three islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Operated by the largest stated-owned travel agency, China International Travel Service, the themed cruise will include both patriotic and recreational activities. Aside from sightseeing, tourists will sign a long paper scroll to show their support for China’s territory sovereignty and sing China’s national anthem on the disputed islands.
The Dream of the South Sea, which can accommodate up to 893 people, will be scheduled to offer this cruise between four and six times per month. It is the second such ship operating in the South China Sea; a 300-person ship running the same route has already hosted 23,000 tourists since April 2013. From now on, the two ships will bring even more Chinese tourists to these islands.
This is only the start of China’s ambitious plan to increase its civilian presence in the South China Sea. In an interview with Xinhua News Agency, Xiao Jie, mayor of Sansha City, further confirmed that the city plans to focus on promoting tourism and developing tourist infrastructure. Sansha plans to offer a wide range of tourist services, including weddings, surfing, fishing and scuba diving trips, and wants to brand itself as an alternative tourist destination to Maldives. The local government’s blueprint also mapped out a plan to develop two to three marine national parks — likely to be in disputed areas as well — for sightseeing purposes.
Furthermore, the city government has formulated an “Action Plan on Promoting Sansha Tourism” with substantial funding from Hainan Province. Currently, Chinese tourists can only visit the South China Sea islands via cruises the depart from Sanya, a tourist city on Hainan Island. To attract more tourists, Sansha plans to open the airport on Yongxing (Woody) Island to civilian flights. Built in 1990, the Yongxing airport has long been an exclusively military airport, for the use of Chinese warplanes. Mayor Xiao Jie promised that soon Chinese tourists will be able visit Sansha via direct commercial flights from their home cities.
Opening the military airport to civilian flights is a perfect example of what the Party circular called pooling and sharing resources as part of military-civilian integration. China has also made a point of sending passenger jets to land on its newly-built airstrips on the Spratlys, opening up the potential for commercial flights to these islands as well.
Aside from tourism, Sansha is also trying to attract more permanent civilian residents. Sasha’s first local regulation, passed by the local legislature in January 2016, was the Administrative Measures on Sansha Residential Services. The local government has pledged to improve infrastructure for island residents, ranging from the water supply, electricity, and sewage to a full-coverage WiFi network.
As part of those efforts, China’s next step to “civilianize” these islands is to attract private investment. Feng Wenhai, Sansha’s deputy mayor, made it clear that Sansha welcomes private investors to support civilian infrastructure construction. Already, the local government plans to initiate a series of public-private-partnerships programs. Plus, Sansha has been branded as an important hub of China’s Maritime Silk Road, raising its profile for investors.
From the beginning, Sansha City has received preferential policies on taxation, which are attractive to private investors. According to the deputy mayor, so far 119 companies have registered in Sansha. Together with 110 individual businesses, they contributed approximately $106.6 million in local taxes in 2015.
If the local government in Sansha is as strategic as it is ambitious, it is likely that these tourism, infrastructure, and financial projects will gradually open to international private investors as well, further legitimizing China’s presence in the South China Sea.
In a few years, China will have a robust tourist industry, a well-populated residential community, and local businesses with mixed public-private ownership in the South China Sea. That will make it difficult for the international community to claim that China’s activities on the disputed islands are pure “militarization” anymore. Undoubtedly, the number of China’s South China Sea island residents and tourists will continue grow at an alarming rate, which will eventually change the nature of China’s military operations in these islands.
To some degree, these Chinese tourists and residents serve as a “civilian shield” in the South China Sea. The potential for large causalities among Chinese civilians will make foreign countries think twice before initiating military action. For all the stakeholders involved in the South China Sea disputes, the “civilianization” of China’s presence in the South China Sea is a significant factor to take into consideration when formulating future military strategy and foreign policy. The trend has already become a reality that international policy makers and experts can no longer afford to neglect.
Zhibo Qiu is an independent researcher and political consultant. Her research focuses on China’s domestic politics, foreign policy, and overseas investment. She holds master’s degrees from the University of Cambridge and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. The article represents the author’s personal opinions.