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China’s Bid to Construct a ‘Maritime Community With a Shared Future’ in the South China Sea

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China’s Bid to Construct a ‘Maritime Community With a Shared Future’ in the South China Sea

China’s quest for control of the disputed waters goes beyond security to include economic and cultural dimensions as well.

China’s Bid to Construct a ‘Maritime Community With a Shared Future’ in the South China Sea
Credit: Depositphotos

As the presidents of China and the United States prepare to meet in San Francisco, on the sidelines of this year’s APEC Summit, governments around the world will be watching. That’s particularly true in Asia, among China’s neighbors, where the stakes for China-U.S. competition are highest. 

The South China Sea issue looks set to feature prominently on the agenda, given repeated worrying encounters between China and the Philippines, a U.S. ally. But to focus only on the security dimension of China’s presence would miss the point. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping set the goal of creating a “Maritime Community with a Shared Future (MCSF)” in 2019, and it is working to make this a reality in the South China Sea. To that end, China is basing its outreach to Southeast Asian countries on three pillars of cooperation – economic, security, and cultural, or civilization in China’s parlance. The goal is to capitalize on China’s institutional capabilities to universalize its own interpretations of development, civilization, and security in the South China Sea. Through this process, Beijing aims to complete a “passive revolution” in the disputed waters.

“Economicizing Disputes” at the National Level

The strategy of “economicizing disputes” arose in October 1982, when China officially mentioned the concept of “putting aside disputes and pursuing joint development.” China then made efforts to continuously ask the Philippines (since 1986) and Vietnam (since 1995) to support this concept. By 2005, China successfully mobilized the Vietnamese and Philippine governments to participate in a joint exploration agreement in the South China Sea. In the end, this project had no further results and Beijing failed to maintain this trilateral mechanism. Still, it set a precedent for any future economic projects in this area.

In 2013, China’s 18th Party Congress proposed the policy of building China into a maritime power, continuing to emphasize the core position of maritime economic security in China’s new mixed security concept (a view put forward during Jiang Zemin’s era). This was an important theoretical development aimed at enhancing the role of “economicization of disputes” in combination with two traditional trends of “politicization” and “militarization” of disputes. 

In 2014, China began building artificial islands on reefs and shoals in the Spratlys group,  a move strongly denounced by rival claimants. In April 2015, for the first time, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced the “dual use” plan to deploy the artificial islands that China had been building in the South China Sea. The islands would, in theory, be used to provide “shelter construction, navigational aid, search and rescue, maritime meteorological forecasting services, fisheries services, and necessary administrative procedures” for China, neighboring countries, and “other operating ships in the South China Sea.” 

In 2017, China launched an initiative for economic cooperation in the expanded South China region at a meeting on the sidelines of the Bo’ao Economic Forum. China maintained this topic on the Bo’ao Forum’s agenda in 2018 and 2019. This initiative referred to maritime economic, marine science, and maritime logistics cooperation projects in the South China Sea – all coordinated by China. The hope is that these steps will gradually lead to building a common cooperation institution for the South China Sea region, again with China in the leading position. In addition, at the Bo’ao Forum in 2019, China announced the possibility of attaching the Expanded South China Regional Economic Cooperation Initiative to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a mega project on connectivity infrastructure that has the support of many countries inside and outside the region.

To strengthen efforts at the national level, many Chinese local governments have also deployed maritime trade connection routes passing through the South China Sea. The first is the Brunei-Guangxi Economic Corridor (BGEC) established in 2014. Next is the International Land-Sea Trade Corridor (ILSTC) connecting project to open a railway from Chongqing to Singapore, with the first rail-sea element completed in September 2017, and the connection through 120 stations across 61 cities in China to Singapore. 

Also within the framework of the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI), in April 2019, the ILSTC route launched the first land-sea connection route from Chongqing through ports in the Gulf of Tonkin (Guangxi) to Indonesia. All three of these land-sea routes in the ILSTC have maritime routes passing through the South China Sea. By early 2019, the government of China’s Hainan province announced that it was building Woody Island (the largest of the Paracels, known as Yongxing Island in China and Phu Lam Island in Vietnam) and small islands in Paracel Islands into a strategic logistics center.

This move was combined with the recording of construction and accretion activities to expand Triton Island, another feature in the Paracels, since March 2023. These activities suddenly accelerated in early August 2023. The impressive level of renovation has seen the former observation post, dome, small port, and helipad on Triton transformed into a concrete pier located inside a seawall harbor with the record of three radar domes, as well as a large administrative building and an airport with a short runway. This transformation could be considered as China’s direction of completing its important connection infrastructure platforms to support the routes of the ILSTC.

Completing an MCSF in the South China Sea: The “Securitization” and “Civilization” Pillars

After more than 40 years of efforts to “economicize” the South China Sea, the ILSTC corridor is now emerging as an important project in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) and receiving the participation of many members of the ASEAN bloc. Based on this cohesive foundation, China has simultaneously deployed the remaining two pillars of “securitization” and “civilization” to cement its influence in Southeast Asia – and particularly the South China Sea.

Under the “securitization” pillar, joint patrols and exercises, from bilateral to multilateral, play a core role in setting the foundations. Eventually, China hopes to unite the common security interests of nearby countries in its “Maritime Community With a Shared Future” in the South China Sea. However, because security cooperation is a sensitive area, China tends to deploy a step-by-step approach. China started with neighboring areas (such as the Mekong River) before moving to areas such as the West Philippine Sea, Natuna Sea, Gulf of Thailand, and finally to the center of the South China Sea. 

Specifically, China and Vietnam conducted 34 joint patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin from 2005 to June 2023. China has also joined Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand in 131 joint patrols on the Mekong River from 2011 to the end of July 2023. In terms of joint exercises, China has established the Aman Youyi exercise since 2014, with the initial form only as a framework for bilateral exercises between China and Malaysia in the “bordering” areas of the South China Sea. In 2018, the Aman Youyi exercise activities became a trilateral framework between China, Malaysia, and Thailand and continued to expand until 2023 with a total of six participating countries (adding Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). 

This year also marked a series of land and sea exercises between China and ASEAN members such as the sixth Golden Dragon exercise between China and Cambodia (March 2023), joint exercises in communication and rescue between the Chinese and Indonesian navies (May 2023), the China-Laos Friendship Shield anti-terrorism exercise (May 2023), the China-Thailand Blue Strike naval exercise (September 2023), and China-Singapore naval and land exercises (September 2023). This series of moves shows that China is effectively shaping a “hub-and-spoke” posture with China, at the center, coordinating joint exercises and patrols with the outer “spokes” – individual ASEAN members. China is also development “minilateral” architectures of three parties (China-Malaysia-Thailand), four parties (the joint patrols on the Mekong River), and six parties (the Aman Youyi exercise).

Regarding the “civilization” pillar, in the context of the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) proposed by Xi in mid-March this year, cultural links in the South China Sea are currently being implemented in two directions. The first is strengthening maritime archeology projects intending to search for shipwrecks in the South China Sea to highlight the historical presence of Chinese commercial and naval fleets. The goal is to strengthen the legal aspect of China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea, both by finding historical evidence to back China’s claims and by building cultural heritage sites on the seabed. 

The second “civilizational” effort is developing heritage diplomacy to mobilize cities or countries located on the Maritime Silk Road to jointly participate in submitting common heritage dossiers to UNESCO. This process was announced in 2014 and conceptualized in 2015. The application started in 2016, and an alliance of 24 Chinese cities was formed to jointly submit the Maritime Silk Road heritage project to UNESCO in 2019. The submission was then combined with the Annual Conference of the “Alliance of Cities Preserving the Maritime Silk Road.” 

Therefore, China’s approach is both bottom-up (promoting local projects with connections to countries in the region) and top-down (establishing the GCI framework next to the Nishan World Civilization Forum) to maximize the direct impacts. But all these projects share a common emphasis on maritime research and conserving cultural heritage in the South China Sea, with a particular focus on ties to ancient China.

In general, with a methodical approach following the three-pillar orientation, China’s construction of an MCSF in the South China Sea has been clearly demonstrated. Although ASEAN countries have taken precautions against the “securitization” pillar and have not participated in any of China’s “civilization” projects thus far, there have still been no specific moves to counterbalance China in the “economicization” pillar, led by the consolidation of the ILSTC. ASEAN counties must increase coordination capacity, lest China be allowed to define the “common denominator” of maritime interests of the entire region.