Hong Kong, Dec 5 : Chinese moves in the South China Sea have been relatively quiet in recent months as President Xi Jinping consolidates the gains he has already achieved. A group of respected academics and experts on the South China Sea issue, speaking at a seminar in Hong Kong jointly organized by Bloomberg, Chatham House and Hong Kong's Lingnan University on 1 December, predicted that this is likely continue for the foreseeable future.
Of course, that does not China will be inactive or passive. For example, the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) confirmed that it had deployed J-11B fighters to Woody Island in the Paracel Islands last week. Imagery showed a fighter taxiing into a climate-controlled hangar, as well as flight operations from the island with 3,000m runway.
J-11 fighters have been located there before - in 2016 and April this year - but the PLA never acknowledged those deployments. A Global Times report said "the thermo-stabilized hangar boosts the jet fighters' durability and resistance to the island's humidity and high temperatures," thus making longer-term deployments possible.
Other reclaimed islands in the contested Spratly Islands have similar hangars, suggesting that the PLA may follow this same blueprint of periodic rotational deployments to its island bases.
Last week Y-9 transport aircraft also flew over the region after taking off from the Western Theater Command, demonstrating the PLAAF's ability to dispatch aircraft from thousands of kilometers away in China to support mock combat operations in the South China Sea.
The South China Sea remains a potential flashpoint as Asia undergoes the end of a 25-year era of unipolarity. China is rising and the US rebalance giving Southeast Asian states more options - sometimes bewildering ones - than ever before.
Bill Hayton, associate fellow of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, pointed to strategic reasons and resource-grabbing (including hydrocarbons, fish and seabed mining) for its recent actions in and consolidation over the South China Sea, all underpinned by a sense of entitlement.
He predicted that China will impose greater pressure on fellow claimants over the maritime area for joint development. Indeed, in some countries like the Philippines there seems to be growing desperation verging on defeatism. For example, the Philippines relies heavily on gas from the Malampaya field 65km north of Palawan, but it is expected to run out by 2024. Reed Bank could fill that shortage but China is preventing Manila from pursuing this option.
In his presentation to an audience that included academics, diplomats and media, Hayton listed three threats to the status quo in the South China Sea. One is "claimant states that refuse to accept compromise on territorial claims" and a second is "claimant states that deny the role of UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] in the South China Sea". Finally, he declared "claims to 'historic rights' are a clear threat to peace".
Referring to the latter, China's historical narrative is replete with errors and inconsistencies. For example, James Shoal (83km off Malaysia's Borneo coast, and currently administered by Malaysia) is claimed as the southernmost point of Chinese territory, when in fact there is no above-sea level territory there at all. This oversight stemmed from a clerical error in the 1930s when this shoal was wrongly translated as tan, a land feature, by Chinese geographers.
When James Shoal or Vanguard Bank are removed from the equation, for example, there are vastly reduced overlaps between China's and others' territorial claims via its ambiguous Nine-Dash Line. There is then no overlap with Indonesia, for instance. As another example of a skewed narrative, Chinese fishing boats are issued with atlases claiming various fishing grounds that blatantly violate UNCLOS provisions.
Unfortunately, Chinese textbooks are educating a new generation of young nationalists with historical errors. Hayton said this was a problem for the region, but an even bigger one for China itself. Why? Hayton explained: "China's sense of entitlement to the South China Sea will lead to future clashes and its sense of entitlement is founded on the misuse of historical evidence."
Li Mingjiang, coordinator of the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, also spoke at the Hong Kong seminar. Addressing the endorsement of a Framework on the Code of Conduct (CoC) between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China on 6 August 2017, Li asked two pertinent questions. One is why China is willing to engage with Southeast Asia on a CoC, and the second is what impact will a CoC have on China's behavior?
China and ASEAN ratified the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) way back in 2002, but the CoC promised at that time has failed to materialize, mainly because China has deliberately dragged the chain and the issue is not of immediate concern to some ASEAN member states.
Li said it was abnormal for governments to make commitments that they do not need to because they like to retain maneuver space. As a more powerful nation than the rest of ASEAN put together, why is Beijing willing to constrain itself by agreeing to pursue a future CoC? Next year negotiations will begin in what could be a drawn-out process to conclude a CoC.
Li offered six explanations for China's promise to participate. First is that the CoC is a legal continuation of the DoC signed in 2002, which legally obliged signatories to adopt one. Secondly, he said that Beijing has figured out strategic advantages to being involved; it could help woo countries away from US influence as part of its regional major-power strategy. Next, Li said having good relations with neighbors is a clear policy objective for China.
Fourthly, there are political benefits from joining CoC talks as it seems to affirm that China is interested in a rules-based order. Further, it better positions China in the South China Sea dispute, legitimizing its claims and reducing international interest or involvement. Finally, Beijing recognizes that a CoC will not be detrimental to its key interests as it is not a legal instrument designed to solve maritime territorial disputes.
As for the second question, Li pondered how the future agreement of a CoC would affect China's behavior. He offered two thoughts. One is that China appears to be at least willing to respect others and maintain the status quo for now. Another is that it could permit a period of relative stability in coming years. Li compared a period of relative calm after the DoC was signed in 2002, and said the same could occur with the CoC. He said Chinese decision-makers know they've gained a lot and created a new status quo, although this came at great expense to international relations. "Is it time for China to take a break and consolidate its gains?" Li asked.
However, the RSIS professor admitted the immense difficulties in predicting China's future policy direction, although the inclusion of Xi's blue ribbon 'One Belt, One Road' (OBOR) in the party's charter signals a desire to strengthen regional relations. By pursuing a more moderate approach in the South China Sea, Beijing could achieve a more advantageous strategic influence.
An interesting side question is whether China will declare an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea, much as it did over the East China Sea when it unilaterally created a zone overlapping ADIZs belonging to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan in November 2013.
With island facilities now in place, it may be easier for the PLA to enforce an ADIZ over the South China Sea, but certainly not to the extent it could in the East China Sea. Gaps over the Spratly Islands would cause China to ensnare itself if it declares an ADIZ it is unable to enforce.
Most panelists at the Hong Kong seminar agreed it would be counterproductive if China declared one in the short term, as it would undo all the recent progress it has made to improve relations with neighbors. Another consideration is where China would draw the limits of any such ADIZ. China does not want to draw baselines and mark the extent of its territorial claims in the South China Sea, thus making it difficult to create an ADIZ.
The panelists conceded that nothing could have been done to stop China reinforcing its claims and reclaim its islands in the Spratlys. Was the USA going to sink China's dredging ships, for instance? Unfortunately, China's rise has cast a shadow over ASEAN and split its unity. Some ASEAN nations want the USA to do something, but only if it will not fuel tensions. This puts the USA in an impossible situation because anything Washington does will simply feed into Beijing's narrative of American interference.
Similarly, the US Navy's freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) in the sea are a tactic rather than a strategy, annoying China but doing nothing to deter it.
In the final analysis, the status quo is likely to continue in the short term. Of course, things could change quickly if one claimant unilaterally decided to opt for joint resource development with China, or if a mistake happened during a FONOP. While an accidental conflict could occur, the US military and PLA have fairly clear-cut sets of rules to give each other space.
Hayton offered three observations relating to South China Sea tensions. He said President Donald Trump's "America First" policy will fail in the South China Sea. He also noted there was no point waiting for a regional solution from ASEAN. Instead, he said it comes down to China's choice - will it be a good neighbor or a pain in the neck? Beijing could invade any territory in the South China Sea within a couple of days, and it can use its economic weight to bully smaller nations.
It must be remembered that military capabilities generally shape strategic intentions. Clearly the PLA is growing greatly in capability and it has already achieved local superiority in the South China Sea. The key driver, then, is China's strategic intentions. If, for instance, it seeks to turn the sea into the South China Lake, then tensions will inevitably escalate.