China’s Chance to Demonstrate Leadership in the South China Sea

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China’s Chance to Demonstrate Leadership in the South China Sea

It’s not too late for Beijing to flip the script in the South China Sea—should it choose to.

China’s Chance to Demonstrate Leadership in the South China Sea
Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong

China, in a series of assertive and sometimes risky unilateral actions, has netted some significant gains in the South China Sea in the past decade. The island outposts it has constructed in the Spratly and Paracel Islands are strategic assets in both war and peace. Together with the vast fishing and law enforcement patrols they enable, the outposts provide unprecedented maritime domain awareness capabilities across the South China Sea and serve as a springboard to extend China’s reach even further into Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.

Beijing seems intent on translating this maritime superiority into a de facto victory in the disputes. On the water, its grey zone operations aim to increase the costs of Vietnamese, Malaysian, and Philippine hydrocarbon and fishing operations to the point where they can no longer operate within the nine-dash line, which denotes China’s vast maritime claim. It has simultaneously pushed for a major geopolitical victory within the negotiations on a Code of Conduct with the ASEAN states, where China has tried to gain a veto right over joint military exercises between claimants and countries from outside the region as well as an outright ban on cooperation with extraregional countries on oil and gas.

But these further gains are proving much more difficult to achieve. Events in the last year have made it clear that Southeast Asian claimants have not given up. Rather, they appear to be hardening under the pressure Beijing has exerted with its coast guard patrols and paramilitary fishing fleets.

If China continues to double down on its pressure campaigns, both on the water and at the negotiation table, it risks overplaying its hand and squandering its advantage rather than exploiting it. Instead, China’s best move would be to rein in its coast guard patrols and get serious about cutting equitable resource sharing deals with other claimants that put aside the question of sovereignty. In doing so, it could effectively lock in its gains to date while laying the foundations for improved relations with Southeast Asia and a greater leadership role in the region.

While the last year has seen unprecedented numbers of Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels — enabled by China’s fully operational outposts in the Spratlys — deployed on pressure campaigns against other claimants, they have been unsuccessful in stopping the activities they are targeting. Both Malaysia and Vietnam have continued new unilateral exploration of offshore energy resources in the face of China Coast Guard ships and civilian fishing vessels sent to contest the operations, deploying their own navies and coast guard in response.

In January, Indonesia reacted forcefully to the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the northern part of its exclusive economic zone, deploying fighter jets, warships, 600 military personnel, and hundreds of fishers, and sending President Joko Widodo to the Natuna Islands to, in his own words, “ensure the enforcement of our sovereign rights over the maritime natural resources in our EEZ.” 

Even the Philippines, whose outpost on Thitu Island has been under constant pressure from Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels since December 2018 — and whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, has made clear his priority of appeasing China in the interest of securing lucrative investment deals — has continued construction at Thitu Island. Rather than submission, China’s actions appear only to have succeeded in strengthening the Southeast Asian claimants’ resolve.

China needs friends and partners in the region much more than it needs the fish, oil, and bragging rights it seems to be fighting for. Fish stocks in the South China Sea are already in danger of collapse — catch rates have declined 75 percent in the past 20 years — while China’s fishing fleet, the world’s largest, operates regularly in distant waters across the globe. Gas resources in the Spratly Islands are too far from the Chinese mainland to access practically, while only one-fifth of the estimated 12 billion barrels of oil is thought to lie in disputed areas — and extraction may not be economically feasible.

Peeling away U.S. partners in the region is a much more substantial objective, but China’s actions at sea are hurting progress towards this goal, not helping it. Unrelenting pressure from Chinese ships aiming to shut down your hydrocarbon and fishing operations is hardly good marketing material for a China-led regional order.

If China wants to assume greater regional leadership, it can do so not through coercion, but instead through magnanimity and confidence in its economic and cultural power. Imagine if it turned to its Southeast Asian neighbors with a genuine desire to compromise and establish resource sharing agreements that would save the South China Sea’s fisheries and allow all claimants access to disputed oil and gas resources. What reservations, then, would the region have about jumping headlong into deeper cooperation with Beijing? China’s economic clout has led these countries to pursue deep engagement even as it threatens to forcibly remove them from their own waters. If China removed that threat, it could begin to forge deeper relationships across a broader range of shared interests and begin to actually position itself as an irreplaceable regional partner.

While some would cite Duterte’s Philippines as an example of China’s using the stick to successfully flip a U.S. ally, the reality (and a concerning one for the United States) is that China could even better capitalize on the current government if it were to deliver the carrots and prove that there are significant benefits in store for countries willing to accommodate China’s maritime interests.

A practical recalibration of its approach to the South China Sea would also eliminate the primary example for arguments that China has malign, revisionist intentions toward the international order. The South China Sea presents the world an important test with regard to how it will handle the rise of China, but first it presents a test of how China wants to rise. If China stops at nothing to gain control over everything within the nine-dash line regardless of what its neighbors or international tribunals have to say about it, then those in Asia and across the world who warn of a hungry and dangerous superpower would be proven right and the stage would be set for a prolonged and costly competition between China and those who would preserve their autonomy. If China can instead play a leading role in managing the disputes and resolving tensions in one of the world’s most salient geopolitical hot spots, it would buttress its own claim to be a responsible power and go a long way towards defusing international anxiety over its growing military and economic might.

China still has the opportunity to flip the script in the South China Sea, and the benefits of doing so outweigh those of realizing its maritime claims through coercion. China could tone down its coast guard patrols and militia deployments and instead focus on leading the region in pursuing practical agreements to manage the disputes. In doing so, it would create the foundation of trust and security required to elevate its relationships with its neighbors into strategic assets. China’s own gravity would pull the region alongside it — it just has to stop pushing them away. 

Harrison Prétat is a research associate at the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.