When discussing China’s South China Sea (SCS) strategy, it’s necessary to begin by asserting that there is in fact a strategy that’s readily discernible from public documents and pronouncements. Though there’s been some disagreement over the degree of coordination between operational units and the central government, with some analysts even questioning if Beijing actually has a discernible strategy in these areas, others have contended that China does in fact have a plan—one that it regards as increasingly successful in achieving its desired objectives. According to Peter Dutton (PDF), the Director of the Chinese Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the US Naval War College, this strategy is centred on the use of ‘non-militarized coercion’ that has provided a means for controlled escalation.
While the execution of this strategy may have at times in the past been poorly implemented due to the vague and developing nature of the strategic goals, since (and even before) Xi Jinping came into power, there’s been a concerted effort to at least increase coordination and oversight, if not to clarify the strategic objectives themselves. However, this increased coordination and oversight is primarily intended to better control the potential for escalation. It’s also part of a wider evolving Chinese strategy to better protect what it views as its ‘maritime rights and interests’ in the SCS. These new strategic objectives do little more than consolidate previous strategic guidance. This suggests that existing patterns of expanded Chinese maritime presence and corresponding incidents at sea are more likely to persist than diminish in the years ahead, though they may be managed more closely by Beijing.
Since 2007 Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies have been conducting what were termed ‘rights protection’ (weiquan) missions in the SCS. These slowly expanded in number and intensity over time, leading to an increase in operational confrontations and incidents at sea between China and not only its neighbours, but also the United States. This shift in strategy was readily evident in the composition of Chinese forces involved in these confrontations: while previously PLA-Navy forces had been primarily involved, by 2009 the majority involved Chinese MLE agencies, according to a report by the US Center for Naval Analysis (CNA).
It’s not known if the ‘rights protection’ missions were approved at the time by key decision making bodies such as the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) or the Central Military Commission (CMC). But a number of recent developments suggest that they were at some point subsequently approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government and are likely to form a central focus of Chinese strategy going forward. The work report of the 18th Party Congress, at which the Chinese leadership transition occurred, defined China for the first time as a ‘maritime power [that will] firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests’. Work reports from the Party Congress play a central role in determining the character and content of future Chinese strategy. This suggests that maritime ‘rights protection’ missions will increasingly become a central component of China’s approach in the SCS.
Important institutional changes in line with these strategic objectives were underway even before the Party Congress, with the central leadership creating several leading small groups to oversee and improve coordination of maritime rights protection in the SCS. The Maritime Rights Office, a leading small group now headed by Xi Jinping, was created in 2012 reportedly to ‘coordinate agencies within China’, and falls under the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), ‘widely believed to be the central policy making group’ in the Chinese Party apparatus.
According to CSIS’ Bonnie Glaser, the Maritime Rights Office includes ‘over 10 representatives from various units, including several from the PLA’, and is in charge of implementing guidelines handed down by the PBSC. Glaser also noted the existence of a second group also headed by Xi Jinping, created specifically to handle issues in the SCS.
This discernible push by the central leadership in Beijing to improve coordination and oversight before the incident off the Natunas in March of 2013 calls into question analysis suggesting that a lack of coordination or oversight from Beijing is the central factor explaining Chinese behaviour in the SCS. But this has never been as sufficient an explanation as some have implied. Increasingly, Beijing’s behaviour can be better explained as part of a broader strategy–to expand and use Chinese MLE agencies to more assertively protect what China considers to be its maritime rights and interests in disputed areas, often through the use of non-militarised coercion.
This includes not only deterrent but also compellent dimensions, as was clearly demonstrated in the recent incidents involving Indonesia. Attempts by China to compel its neighbours into accepting its ‘historic rights’ in the SCS pose a potential threat to the international rules and norms embodied in UNCLOS. And, to the extent that China’s ‘maritime rights and interests’ are defined based on historical rather than legal grounds, this is an implicit challenge to the status quo.
While China may truly see its actions in a reactive or defensive light, others are unlikely to share this perception. They may very well interpret China’s intentions as more offensive, based on own definition of the status quo as well as its attempt to enforce it through coercive means. So long as China fails to take into account the concerns of its neighbours and persists in carrying out a coercive strategy in the SCS, the disputes will remain China’s ‘Achilles heel’ in Southeast Asia. And the danger that misperception or miscalculation could render escalation less controllable in future incidents is a distinct possibility.
Scott Bentley is currently a PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW. His research focuses on security strategies in maritime Southeast Asia. Image courtesy of Flickr user bluesmoon.