American Interest

Reading the South China Sea

Two recent books offer a helpful guide to Southeast Asia’s most complex maritime dispute

Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)

p(firstLetter). Asian Waters, the new book by veteran Asia journalist Humphrey Hawksley, recently became my ideal travel companion on a long flight to Australia, en route to the South China Sea. For any other reader hoping to navigate those troubled waters, or seeking a broad overview of the geopolitical fault lines in Asia, Hawksley’s book provides an excellent guide.

The book’s journey can admittedly be a digressive one, at times wading way beyond Asian waters and far onto shore. Hawksley’s book touches on North Korea’s illicit nuclear program and much else besides. One chapter describes India’s stunted development, recounting in gruesome detail the slavery-like conditions in its brick kilns. Another chapter on Vietnam finds Hawksley meandering into an argument as to why, in the late 1970s, Vietnam was unnecessarily constrained by Cold War logic from taming the bloody Khmer Rouge in neighboring Cambodia. Such stories are certainly intriguing, flowing from Hawksley’s decades of first-hand reporting from the region.

Yet they aren’t central to the book’s main story, which concerns China’s rise, the contest for control of the South China Sea, and the larger great power game between the United States and China. That is the geopolitical story of the century. China is gradually enacting its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in the South China Sea. The United States is pushing back, including by conducting naval freedom of navigation operations, but has not come up with an effective overall strategic response. Meanwhile, China gradually expands its military reach—using salami-slicing tactics to create new facts on the ground (or rather at sea), building new islands, and coercing smaller neighbors such as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

Hawksley notes how the announcement of the U.S. “pivot to Asia” led to a rapid expansion of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, from the deft takeover of Scarborough Shoal close to the Philippines to the rapid move of a Chinese state-controlled oil rig into disputed areas with Vietnam. In these chapters, Hawksley’s on-the-ground reporting blends well with the geopolitics.

Consider, for instance, his meetings with a disgruntled Philippine fisherman, whose fishing grounds near Scarborough were taken over by China. During their initial encounter, the fisherman is visibly angry, exclaiming that “if America supports us, we should go to war with them.” But later, Hawksley visits the same fisherman after his village has been bought up by Chinese economic assistance and finds that his complaints are now subdued. In many ways, the anecdote is a microcosm for the choice made by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Like the fisherman, Duterte opted for Chinese money rather than protecting Philippine sovereignty. He has thus tacitly accepted that China now controls the seas in proximity to the Philippines, which his predecessor Aquino had successfully challenged through an international court ruling based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In some passages, Hawksley comes out surprisingly starry-eyed about the People’s Republic of China. He repeatedly cites China’s “century of humiliation” as an historical fact without explaining that it is also centrally reinforced nationalistic propaganda employed by the Chinese Communist Party to knit the nation together. He goes overboard in a pointless chapter on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s appearance at the elite Davos gathering in January 2017, where he is described as a “moral torch of world leadership.” Hawksley’s moral compass seems to have gone spinning when he writes, “While Asia and China are talking about tearing down controls and borders, America and Europe are looking to tighten them.” In reality, there can be no comparison between democracies working to balance their humanitarian obligations to a huge global flow of refugees, and authoritarian China’s oppressive treatment of its Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, including the subjection of its population to conditions resembling concentration camps.

Despite these occasional errors in judgment, though, Hawksley’s book does effectively communicate the stakes of his subject. The South China Sea will be both a test of China’s coming of age as a great power and of the United States’ continued resolve as a Pacific power. And it could end in war, as previous historical experiences testify.

p(firstLetter). If you want a tougher approach to China, look no further than the edited volume Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Great Game in the South China Sea. Editor Anders Corr’s introduction slams China for its expansionism and argues—rightly, in my view—that President Obama’s military posture was too weak to counter the Chinese. It only gets too far-fetched when Corr tenuously attributes symbiotic territorial goals to China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

An equally strong-worded contribution comes from retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell. He writes of “China’s historically mistaken irredentist claims of sovereignty” in the South China Sea, seeing its efforts there as a building block in a “confrontational grand strategy” whose ultimate goal is “establishing China as a global power that seeks to control the international order.” In his reading, a stronger U.S. and regional military posture is the obvious remedy.

Great Powers, Grand Strategies also provides the perspectives of other regional players. Leszek Buszynski has an enlightening chapter on the regional grouping ASEAN, whose internal divisions have hampered its ability to play a meaningful conflict-mediating role in the South China Sea. In recent years, China has managed to use its ASEAN allies such as Cambodia and Laos to block even innocuous-sounding declarations. The depressing conclusion is that the period of China’s “good neighbor policy,” even providing token nods to ASEAN’s relevance, is over. ASEAN, an organization based on multilateralism, was not able to coalesce around full-fledged support for the clear-cut maritime law ruling in the Philippine arbitration case of 2016. The most concerned ASEAN countries like Vietnam now seek alternative hedging options such as increased military cooperation with the United States and Japan. By now, to paraphrase the Chinese Foreign Minister lecturing ASEAN in 2010, there is only one big country in Asia and a lot of small ones.

One regional power who warily watches China’s moves in the South China Sea is Japan. It has its own disputes with China in the East China Sea over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diayou Islands. A Chinese-controlled South China Sea would hold negative security implications for Japan, which is the second-largest energy importer in Asia and thus dependent on uninterrupted sea lanes. Accordingly, Japan spoke out publicly in clear terms in defense of freedom of navigation following the arbitrational ruling that the Philippines brought against China in 2016, noting that it was “final and legally binding on the parties . . . under the provisions of UNCLOS.” ASEAN countries individually and as an organization were more hesitant to invoke the “legally binding” language on China. Still, Japan is not among the small group of countries who conduct freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Its own sea dispute with China also instills a sense of caution, combined with Japan’s continued restraint to deploy far from its shores even under its ever more “proactively pacifist” stance.

Three more chapters, respectively, cover India, Russia, and the European Union, all marginal players in the South China Sea. A chapter on the Republic of China (Taiwan), the inventor of the nine-dash-line, is conspicuously lacking and would have served the book well.

Gordon Chang describes India’s posture, yet seeks to make more out of India’s grand strategy than there is. In my reading, India’s interests in the South China Sea boil down to one long-delayed, unsuccessful oil exploration project with Vietnam. That project rankles China, and nothing more. Meanwhile China is successfully expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean.

Russia, for its part, desires to be a great power again in Asia, but demonstrates little muscle and consistency in pursuit of that goal. Russia supports China in trying to push the United States out of the region, but conversely hedges against China with continued arms sales to Vietnam, including submarines.

The European Union’s involvement remains aspirational. As a multilateral organization that frequently trumpets international law and peaceful multilateralism, it should in theory have been the first to defend the universal principle of freedom of navigation and the UN Law of the Sea. Unfortunately, the EU declaration on the arbitrational ruling in 2016 was as meek as ASEAN’s. EU member states collectively have large-scale commercial interests in the region, but few means and little political will to enforce them. On the harder edge, France and most recently the United Kingdom have conducted military naval transitsthrough the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. This could become the stepping stone for a stronger EU role, provided the European Union is not too distracted by its own urgent regional challenges.

Finally, the big looming national security question is the power play between the United States and China. China seeks to frame its actions as a counter to expanding U.S. force projection in the region. By contrast, American hawks such as Corr and Fanell find that the current U.S. posture has been a response to China’s provocations—and too timid a response at that. What, then, is the right posture for the United States to effectively counterbalance China?

The chapter by Sean Liedman provides an excellent historical overview of the U.S. role in the South China Sea and outlines three options. The first is a policy of continued gradual concessions, which is the current state of play. A second option would try to freeze the status quo, with the United States, among other things, becoming clearer about its willingness to defend the maritime interests of its treaty ally the Philippines. A third strategy would try to roll back the Chinese advances, including by targeted sanctions on Chinese companies involved in land reclamation. In that regard, the statement of Chinese General Xu Guangyu, quoted in Hawksley’s book, is ominous: “If the Americans try to remove us from the Spratly Islands . . . there will be war.”

The most likely strategy under the current Administration seems to land somewhere between options one and two, although the recent National Security Strategy makes it clear that raw power competition is a possibility for the U.S.-China relationship in the years to come. Trump himself has said little about the South China Sea, and his tweet that he was “surprised” by China’s coercion in the South China Sea, following Defense Secretary Mattis’s speech at Shangri-La on June 3, added little clarity. Perhaps this issue could become a transactional bargaining chip for Trump in a larger deal involving trade and North Korea, currently two higher-ranked U.S. priorities.

p(firstLetter). If, dear reader, you are in a hurry to read up on the South China Sea, go straight to Bill Hayton’s excellent chapter, which confirms his preeminence among interpreters of the region. It describes the situation from a Chinese and historical perspective, yet in an objective and matter-of-fact tone. Hayton explains how the advances in the South China Sea are not perceived as expansionism by China but a protection of its own territory based on a “nationalist reading of regional history.” Its confidence about its claim is so deeply embedded in Chinese policymaking and national consciousness that the “nine-dash line,” China’s cow tongue-shaped claim protruding more than 1,000 kilometers south into sea, has been added to Chinese passports. Provocatively, Chinese tourists have lately been seen arriving in Vietnam with “cow’s tongue” T-shirts, flaunting the inclusion of the South China Sea and its islands into Chinese territory.

Hayton pokes factual holes in China’s “false memory syndrome” and “imagined history,” which unfortunately is too often regurgitated by gullible Western scholars. In reality, the reefs in the South China Sea were a no-man’s land, home to semi-nomadic fishermen and pirates. In 1933, the French laid claim to the Spratlys through their presence in Indochina, with limited Chinese objections. At the time, the Paracels were perceived as China’s southernmost naval territory. It was only in the 1940s that the Nationalist government created the first maps showing the South China Sea as being Chinese territory, with an imprecise 11-dash line, and it was only in 2009 that China submitted the nine-dash line map as an official claim in the international arena. These historical facts are airbrushed out when Secretary General Xi Jinping says that “the South China Sea islands have been China’s territory since ancient times.” This is part of the triumphalist narrative of the Chinese Communist Party, which credits itself for finally ending the century of national humiliation.

Thus, as Hayton points out, China’s sense of entitlement is the root cause of potential conflict, even though it could spell the end of China’s carefully choreographed “peaceful rise.” In the fitting words of strategist Edward Luttwak, China’s “great-power autism” seems to be increasing. Equally so are the fears of China’s smaller neighbors, who dread what is to come in the South China Sea.