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China’s Maritime Trap

The Diplomat 2015-10-24

Just days after the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, news spread that the U.S. Navy would soon challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, sending a ship within 12 nautical miles of some of China’s man-made islands built on top of reefs in the Spratly Islands. True or not, the news soon drew worldwide attention and effectively overshadowed any outcomes from the summit during what is a testing time for China-U.S. relations.

In recent years, and especially since Xi Jinping became president, China has paid increasing attention to the sea and to its maritime interests and rights. At the 18th CPC National Congress, China officially put forward the vision of building a maritime power to effectively defend its maritime interests and rights. In a first, China’s Defense White Paper 2013 has four paragraphs devoted to emphasizing the importance of safeguarding China’s maritime interests and rights. The Defense White Paper 2015, under the sub-section of National Security Situation, warns that China’s maritime interests and rights are being eroded by some of its neighbors who are taking provocative actions by strengthening their military presence and construction on the illegally occupied islands and reefs of China, and claims some powers from outside the region are also interfering in the South China Sea issue and that one country even goes so far as to conduct intense surveillance in China’s EEZs. As a result, it said, maintaining its maritime interests and rights will be a long-term challenge for China.

As a traditional continental power but also one with a long coastline and an economy is increasingly dependent on overseas energy, resources, and markets, it is hardly surprising that China is turning its eyes to the sea. After all, China has to make sure its energy, resources, and commodities will can transit safely and smoothly. Besides, when your maritime rights and interests are being eroded and challenged, you’ve got to do something to defend them.

While maintaining maritime commerce safety is an area where all parties can cooperate and contribute, defending an individual country’s maritime rights and interests is not. Instead, it’s an issue in which countries’ interests and perspectives may differ and even conflict. This is especially the case in the South China Sea, where six or (including Taiwan) seven parties claim rights or sovereignty over all or some of the islands and reefs. Among the claimants, China claims all the islands and reefs in the South China Sea but occupies only eight, while Vietnam occupies 29, the Philippines nine, and Malaysia five. Since 2009, Vietnam has accelerated its land reclamation and outposts upgrades, and between 2009 and 2014, it has reclaimed approximately 60 acres, according to David Shear, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs. Since late 2013, China has also begun to reclaim land in the South China Sea, and according to U.S. Defense Department, China has reclaimed 2000 acres, more than all other claimants combined over the history of their claims.

China’s land reclamation, together with its perceived assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas, have caused widespread concern, and have also constrained its relations with its neighbors and with the U.S. People are worried not only about the maritime disputes per se, but also about China’s long-term strategic intentions.

In the past, especially during the 1990s, China advocated a foreign policy of keeping a low profile and acting modestly in general, and shelving its sovereignty disputes in favor of cooperative resource development as a way out of knotty maritime disputes in particular. This foreign policy wisdom, together with an overall opening-up strategy created a favorable and peaceful environment that enabled China to keep its economy growing uninterrupted for more than thirty years, resulting in its dramatic rise within the existing international order.

This is not to argue that China should forsake its maritime rights or interests for the sake of economic growth or international image, but rather that it should put its maritime strategy in perspective. To avoid a possible maritime trap that will not only be detrimental to China’s true national interests, but also negatively affect many other countries, China, as a major clamant, should think longer term and take steps to deescalate the tension surrounding the disputes.

First, China’s maritime strategy, if there is one, should serve its overall strategy – that is, China’s rise as a great and respected nation among nations – and not vice versa. If a maritime strategy successfully alienates neighboring countries and leading powers and proves to be an obstacle to its overall national strategy, it’s time to sit down and think twice.

Second, China should put forward a better argument for its maritime rights, especially the disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea. To date, China has mainly resorted to historical documents and maps to support its claims in the South China Sea, and what’s lacking is competent and persuasive legal arguments and evidence for its claims. China has also yet to clarify the meaning of its nine dash line claim in the South China Sea.

Third, China should accelerate its Code of Conduct dialogue with ASEAN. Given that sovereignty is such a highly charged issue, there is no hope of a definitive solution to that any time soon. Dialogue and compromise is needed by all parties. On July 29, China and ASEAN held the ninth Senior Officials Meeting in Tianjin. The meeting authorized the joint working group on implementing the DOC to discuss a way to formulate the COC, and exchanged views on establishing maritime risk management and control preventive measures before the COC is finalized. This is a step in the right direction, and if a COC is finally worked out and effectively implemented, it will remove a substantial obstacle in China’s relations with ASEAN and the U.S.