Tag Archives: South China Sea

Aiki in the South China Sea: Fresh Asymmetric Approaches and Sea Lane Vulnerabilities

By Christopher Bassler and Matthew McCarton

The Challenge: Growing Uncertainty and Tensions in the South China Sea

Over the last decade, stability in the South China Sea (SCS) has progressively deteriorated because of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) actions. China’s leadership has followed a long-term, multi-pronged strategy. On the military front they have constructed a “Great Wall of Sand”1 through island building, deployed an underwater “Great Wall of Sensors;”2 and completed detailed planning and preparations to establish air defense identification zones3(ADIZ) in the SCS. Despite assurances from the highest levels of the CCP leadership, they have militarized islands in the SCS,4 deployed bombers to the Paracels5 and built up military forces in the region.6 Diplomatically, the CCP has ignored international legal rulings, continued to assert sovereignty over disputed territories,7 and sought to dissuade, protest, and prevent Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS).8 On the commercial front, the CCP has encouraged its large fishing fleet to overfish within other states’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs).9 When confronted, they have often harassed local fisherman and even purposely collided with them, leading to sinking vessels.10

A key feature of the CCP’s approach has been an attempt to calibrate individual disruptive and provocative actions in the SCS (and elsewhere) below the international threshold for armed conflict. As a result, responses from individual states, or coordinated action from nations with common interests, have been limited. The U.S. and other nations have requested clarity from the CCP or simply disregarded China’s unlawful and unfounded maritime claims. The only other notable responses have been the establishment of a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a series of FONOPS, and the use of limited but targeted sanctions.11 A recent indicator of the state of increasing tensions in the region is the establishment of a new “crisis communications” mechanism between the U.S. and China,12 as well as reportedly strict orders from CCP leadership to avoid initiating fire,13 in an attempt to avoid sudden armed escalation in the SCS.

With hindsight, it is unmistakably clear that the CCP’s collective actions have been in support of a long-term strategy. It is equally apparent that traditional instruments of diplomacy and military power have had limited practical effect against incremental sub-threshold actions. Because no nation has a desire for escalation, the CCP’s strategy must be countered with sub-threshold asymmetric actions by the U.S. and allies. These actions must capture the CCP leadership’s attention, help them to understand that their provocations are taken seriously, and that there are corresponding negative consequences.

Aiki is a fundamental principle in Japanese martial arts philosophy that encapsulates the idea of using minimal exertion and control to negate or redirect an adversary’s strength to achieve advantage. The legitimacy of the CCP’s leadership rests on a core foundation of economic strength and growth, as well as prestige. Due to China’s geography, the principal artery of this economic growth is through the maritime approaches of the SCS. The most direct way to affect CCP behavior is to consider how the free flow of goods and energy at sea through the maritime approaches of the SCS may be altered. And by alternating these maritime flows, further impacts and restructuring of trade-flows and global supply chains may also occur.

No Good Options: Considering Maritime Asymmetric Strategies

Since the end of World War II, the overwhelming might of the U.S. Navy has guaranteed freedom of the oceans and ever-increasing maritime commercial activity that has lifted countless people out of poverty around the world. However, there are many indications of the American public’s growing desire for a retreat from the forms of global engagement that have been the norm since the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed 75 years ago on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.14 Over the last two decades, the ship inventory and material readiness of the U.S. Navy have noticeably declined, while the PLAN has emerged as a regional naval power with increasing capabilities. Future American naval recapitalization efforts are likely to face the twin headwinds of a lack of political will and increasing pressure on defense budgets. Efforts to encourage allies to increase defense spending and concentrate on effective capabilities will continue, while suggestions to “lead from behind” will likely increase. 

The core of American naval strategy will continue to be to fight an “away game” when required. The U.S. Navy will still be the world-leading force with its substantial naval power and effectiveness, even if no longer in quantity, and will contribute massively to global security, despite the growing pressures. However, in the next decade, the U.S. is likely to find it increasingly difficult to project power whenever and wherever it wants, as it had grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War.

For these reasons asymmetric strategies must be developed by the U.S. and key allies, both as a hedge against decline and to act as force multipliers. The imperative is not new. When the U.S. Navy’s inventory began to first noticeably decline during the 2000s, the idea of a 1,000-ship navy gained prominence.15 This was more of a conceptual framework and a call for expanding cooperation, than a significant change in activities or force structure. The U.S. Navy has for decades used multinational task group exercises and interoperability training with allied navies to increase capability. Concepts have also been developed to use conventional weapons in asymmetric “hedgehog” strategies, particularly by key allies and partners, but these are mainly meant to be used if, and when, a conflict arises. What is needed is for the U.S. to help its allies and key partners to cooperatively develop comprehensive maritime-based asymmetric sub-threshold strategies to respond to the CCP’s activities and incursions.

Since antiquity, the oceans have been a venue for naval powers, big and small, to clash in pursuit of their respective national interests.16 If American maritime power recedes, local power vacuums will eventually be filled. The chances for naval conflict will increase between regional hegemons, like China, and smaller states, especially those with predominantly coastal navies. For the broader Indo-Pacific region, and especially in the SCS, several key factors further increase the odds of conflict. The number of small surface combatants in the Indo-Pacific has greatly increased (Figure 1) as well as the number of nations acquiring and operating them (Figure 2). This growth in small surface combatants is in direct response to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that gave each nation an incentive to protect its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). All navies have the following basic options at their disposal: fleet engagement, blockade, raids on commerce (guerre de course), and raiding (guerre d’razzia).  

Figure 1. Number of Small Naval Surface Combatants (50-4,000 tons displacement), 1980-2014, by Region, with China featured. (Click to expand)17

Most small navies have neither the means nor the strategic interests to seek out a climactic fleet engagement. Traditional sea control is beyond the means of smaller coastally oriented navies. Instead, they seek to defend the sovereignty of their EEZ and maintain a force that is credible enough to deter aggression by being capable of exacting a heavy price from their adversary, even if they have no chance of defeating a larger foe.18 Sea denial approaches typically focus on the use of shore-based missiles and aircraft, sea mines, torpedoes, submarines, and fast attack surface combatants. Technological advances have allowed for increasingly more capable missiles to be effectively deployed on smaller combatants, as well as from land. But these are less useful against sub-threshold actions. Likewise, blockades are difficult to implement effectively and have a high probability of leading to escalation, especially over time.19  

Effective asymmetric strategies are needed. There are options beyond sea control and sea denial, primarily sea disruption or harassment: raids on commerce (guerre de course) and raiding (guerre d’razzia).20

Figure 2: Small Naval Surface Combatants (50-4,000 tons displacement) of Asia, 1980-2014.(Click to expand)21

Commerce raiding is resource-intensive and typically best employed during a protracted war. Historically, it has been carried out by a near-peer navy, or at minimum, a navy that enjoys a specific technological or geographic advantage. The U-boat enabled Germany to use this approach against Great Britain and the U.S during both World Wars. This was also part of the U.S. Navy’s strategy against Japan from 1942-45. The nascent American Navy in both the American Revolution and War of 1812 was no match for a direct confrontation with the Royal Navy, but successfully conducted limited commerce raiding against Great Britain because of favorable geography and the technical superiority of its frigates over their Royal Navy counterparts. Guerre de course does not seek to achieve a direct naval result, but to diminish the national will of an adversary through protracted economic pain. Ultimately, guerre de course is not a good option for a small coastal navy because the convoy is an effective counter-strategy, as has been demonstrated from antiquity, through the Anglo-Dutch Wars, to the Napoleonic Era and 20th Century wars.

Generalized raiding has a long historical tradition as an asymmetric approach to maritime strategy. This was especially prevalent before the modern era, when weaker central governments did not have the resources to maintain highly trained standing navies. With the advent of strong central governments and professional navies, guerre d’razzia fell out of favor with major powers because it was ultimately counterproductive to their respective hegemony. Since the age of steam and steel, the disparity in capabilities between major navies and all others has grown so large that guerre d’razzia became rare and highly localized. Its use dwindled to specific regions where a major power could use a smaller ally as a skirmisher against a major power adversary.

Coupled with longer-term efforts for economic sanctions, increased patrols, direct support, capacity building and collective statements,22 such a guerre d’razzia strategy could be revived in the SCS. A robust asymmetric strategy of guerre d’razzia could include maritime irregulars, privateers/raiders, and proxy forces employed in hit-and-run raids on commercial ships. Maritime raiding requires speed, deniability, non-uniform assets, and the ability to blend back into the local surroundings. Coastal navies could employ these sub-threshold/gray zone tactics to minimize a regional great power’s conventional military response to their provocations. Of course, there would be a certain irony of nations employing maritime “guerrilla tactics” against the CCP. Guerre d’razzia may be enticing to some states, because the economic dimension of Chinese power remains at the forefront of the CCP leadership’s thinking, especially with the continued slowing of the Chinese economy.

However, this would be antithetical and illiberal to the predominant view of an international rules-based order. By upholding a rules-based order in the SCS, the U.S. has been a key enabler of ensuring the conditions for Chinese economic growth and power, as well as gray zone methods of coercion. Until recently, the U.S. has accepted the role as the world’s security guarantor, especially in critically important maritime zones. As a result, the U.S. and key allies have continued to ensure the free flow of commerce across the entirety of the SCS, while the PRC has simultaneously been free-riding and increasingly provocative. But what else can be done?

The Least Bad Option: Rerouting the Sea Lanes

Some have rationalized their acceptance of the militarization of the islands in the SCS on the basis that it was unlikely to affect commercial shipping directly.23 However, the steady deterioration of the situation in the SCS should encourage skepticism of those assumptions. The CCP’s continued provocative actions in the SCS have negatively affected the long-guaranteed security in the region for all. The dependability and predictability of shipping transits through the SCS sea lanes have become increasingly uncertain.

The U.S. and its regional allies and partners should recognize the reality of this major shift and adapt accordingly to establish a new major maritime trade route. This would re-route the preponderance of maritime traffic not destined for China from the Strait of Malacca through the Java Sea and the Makassar Strait, then the Celebes Sea, and north along the east side of the Philippines (Figure 3), instead of around the Spratly Islands. This approach would only increase shipping times by a few days and ensure maritime trade flows to key allies such as Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Japan. By rerouting shipping around the South China Sea, the volume of maritime traffic that China could threaten or coerce would decrease and correspondingly diminish its leverage.

Figure 3. Shipping Routes Through the South China Sea (CSBA Graphic). Shipping Flows (various cargo types) in the Indo-Pacific (top left ); simplified primary shipping routes used today in the South China Sea (bottom left); proposed alternative primary shipping routes (right).[Click to expand]24
The U.S. should declare that until further notice, it will only ensure the security of shipping trade flows in the southern half of the SCS. Even without immediate crisis or war, the U.S. administration could announce that due to CCP actions, including illegal island building and militarization, the U.S. can no longer guarantee the security of shipping in the specific region of the northern half of SCS (above the Spratly Islands). It should urge China to return to recognizing and adhering to long-standing international norms, or the effect will be a permanent re-routing of key global shipping. The U.S. should be clear that shipping will still be protected for all ASEAN states bordering the SCS (e.g. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, and Cambodia), all of which can be accessed via the southern half, and with transits closely following the coastline, particularly in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines. Shipping flows to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan will continue to be protected, and it will continue to be in their mutual interest to support the establishment and patrols of this alternative route that avoids the most contested parts of the SCS. A corresponding presidential direction to INDOPACOM would ensure that FONOPS would still be conducted throughout the entirety of the SCS, but that protection of shipping is no longer “guaranteed” in the northern half.

By focusing on the southern half of the SCS, potential vulnerabilities from China’s militarization of the Spratly Islands would be minimized, while still ensuring critical shipping flows to regional states. This would prioritize the scope of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard activities,25 while still conducting FONOPS in the northern half of the SCS, as desired. The U.S. must emphasize to Indo-Pacific nations that this is not ceding the SCS to become effectively a Chinese “lake,” but instead reassure them that the objective is to re-route global shipping traffic to a more free, open, predictable, and stable alternative.

Understandably, the main consideration for global shipping is security and stability to enable predictable schedules. The U.S. and like-minded countries should encourage this alternative routing, for stability and predictability, and so maritime forces can be better used to collectively ensure shipping in a much safer and less contentious new route. Inevitable outrage or backlash from the CCP will only help to re-enforce the urgent need for implementing this approach.

By shifting the preponderance of maritime traffic out of the northern half of the SCS, especially those sailing to non-Chinese destinations, this would also make the task of target deconfliction easier in the undesirable event of future hostilities. This is especially important within close proximity to the sophisticated surveillance and weapons capabilities China has deployed on many of the artificial islands.26 Vessels remaining in the northern half of the SCS would likely be destined for Chinese ports, or be military vessels, which would enable other strategies, such as sea denial or blockades to be much easier to execute when necessary. Attempts to disrupt or attack vessels following the alternative shipping route outside of the SCS would be more difficult due to its proximity to allied territory where combined sea, air, and land would be available to provide substantial and effective support and safety.

Some piracy already occurs in the SCS.27 However, without the express guarantee of securing the shipping lanes in the northern half of the SCS, a corresponding increase in piracy and raiding-like activity may follow, concentrating to this geography. An uptick in this activity may be a result of the obvious pursuit of plunder, or potentially some states opportunistically enacting a limited guerre d’razzia strategy. Commerce raiding in the northern SCS would be unlikely to affect the Chinese economy directly, given its massive size. However, the unfortunate occurrence of commerce raiding would likely require the PLAN to become encumbered with dealing with local problems, chasing asymmetric ghosts at sea.

Conclusion

If select states were to employ maritime guerilla warfare in a limited and targeted way in the northern half of the SCS, China would have a clear glimpse of the implications of a world without the U.S. Navy and allies and partners guaranteeing the free flow of shipping. This would be a stark reminder of the key differences between a regional great power and the constructive and rules-based role of a global hegemon. This continued activity would further incentivize the restructure of trade flows and global supply chains, particularly away from the instability associated with transiting to Chinese ports, and instead to ASEAN countries. Key Indo-Pacific nations could more effectively employ their fleets of coast guard vessels and small combatants to support limited-range convoy escorts along the new routes, as well as fisheries patrols, enabling them to contribute more to their own security and the stability of the Indo-Pacific region, while avoiding a hyper-localized region of instability.

It is time for the U.S. and key allies to refocus their efforts and enact an effective response in the South China Sea by re-routing the sea lanes for peace, stability, and freedom for all nations of the Indo-Pacific that adhere to international law and rules-based order.

Christopher Bassler is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Matthew McCarton is a Senior Strategist at Alion Science and Technology Corporation.

References

1. https://www.cpf.navy.mil/leaders/harry-harris/speeches/2015/03/ASPI-Australia.pdf

2. https://www.forbes.com/sites/hisutton/2020/08/05/china-builds-surveillance-network-in-international-waters-of-south-china-sea/#7ad20aef74f3

3. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3086679/beijings-plans-south-china-sea-air-defence-identification-zone

4. https://thediplomat.com/2016/12/its-official-xi-jinping-breaks-his-non-militarization-pledge-in-the-spratlys/; and https://www.wsj.com/articles/china-completes-runway-on-artificial-island-in-south-china-sea-1443184818

5. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/south-china-sea-as-china-deploys-bomber-vietnam-briefs-india-about-deteriorating-situation/articleshow/77682032.cms

6. https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2020-07-20/china-us-escalate-forces-threats-in-south-china-sea

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/13/world/asia/south-china-sea-hague-ruling-philippines.html

8. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/27/world/asia/missiles-south-china-sea.html/

9. https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/china-illegal-fishing-fleet/; and https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3097929/chinese-fishing-boats-near-galapagos-have-cut-satellite

10. https://csis-ilab.github.io/cpower-viz/csis-china-sea/; and https://maritime-executive.com/article/report-chinese-vessel-rams-vietnamese-fishing-boat-in-s-china-sea

11. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/27/south-china-sea-us-unveils-first-sanctions-linked-to-militarisation

12. https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/1321525/South-China-Sea-US-china-Beijing-maritime-conflict-Mark-Esper-Defense-Minister-Wei-Fenghe

13. https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/chinese-military-told-to-prevent-escalation-in-interactions-with-us/

14. Zeihan, Peter, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, Harper Business, 2020.

15. McGrath, Bryan G. “1,000-Ship Navy and Maritime Strategy,” Proceedings, January 2007.

16. Rodgers, William L., Admiral (USN), Greek and Roman Naval Warfare: A Study of Strategy, Tactics, and Ship Design from Salamis (480 B.C.) to Actium (31 B.C.) Naval Institute Press, 1937; Rodgers, William L., Vice Admiral, USN (Ret.), Naval Warfare Under Oars; 4th to 16th Centuries, Naval Institute Press, 1940.

17. McCarton, Matthew, A Brief History of Small Combatants- Their Evolution and Divergence in the Modern Era, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) – Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) report, September 2014.

18. Borresen, Jacob, “The Seapower of the Coastal State,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 17, 1994 -Issue 1: SEAPOWER: Theory and Practice

19. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/how-massive-naval-blockade-could-bring-china-its-knees-war-50957?page=0%2C1

20. Armstrong, B.J. Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.

21. McCarton, Matthew, A Brief History of Small Combatants- Their Evolution and Divergence in the Modern Era, Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division (NSWCCD) – Center for Innovation in Ship Design (CISD) report, September 2014.

22. https://warontherocks.com/2020/07/what-options-are-on-the-table-in-the-south-china-sea/

23. https://thediplomat.com/2015/05/4-reasons-why-china-is-no-threat-to-south-china-sea-commerce/

24. Top left in Babbage, Ross (ed.), “Which Way the Dragon? Sharpening Allied Perceptions of China’s Strategic Trajectory” CSBA Report, 2020; with data from Kiln and University College London, “Visualization of Global Cargo Ships,” (available at: https://www.shipmap.org/). The passage frequency and routing of different types of ships is indicated by the colored lines. Yellow = container ships, Mid-blue = dry bulk carriers, Red = tankers, Light blue= bulk gas carriers, Pink = vehicle carriers

25. https://news.usni.org/2019/08/27/pacific-deputy-coast-guard-a-continuing-force-multiplier-with-navy-in-global-missions

26. https://www.andrewerickson.com/2020/08/south-china-sea-military-capabilities-series-unique-penetrating-insights-from-capt-j-michael-dahm-usn-ret-former-assistant-u-s-naval-attache-in-beijing/

27. http://cimsec.org/marines-and-mercenaries-beware-the-irregular-threat-in-the-littoral/45409

Featured Image: China’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrives in Hong Kong waters on July 7, 2017, less than a week after a high-profile visit by president Xi Jinping. (Photo via AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Cooperative Maritime Law Enforcement and Overfishing in the South China Sea

By Michael Perry

Introduction

Fish are the primary source of animal protein for populations bordering the South China Sea (SCS) and overfishing in the region has emerged as a major threat to food security.1 Over the past 30 years fish stocks have declined by one-third and are expected to decrease an additional 59 percent by 2045 if current practices persist.2

The threat is recognized by all SCS nations but hasn’t been curtailed for three primary reasons. First, the migratory nature of fish requires all SCS nations to jointly agree on constraints. Disagreements have not only made cooperation difficult, but have led to increasingly frequent confrontations between rival Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE) forces and fishermen. Second, even if nations could agree, the presence of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing creates an MLE challenge. Lastly, the first two challenges coalesce to form a third – disparities in MLE capabilities affect perceptions of fairness and the perceived benefits of cooperation. That is, a nation asked to carry a heavier MLE burden may demand an increased share of fish stocks.

There may be a solution. U.S. MLE assistance can set the conditions for a fair, fully cooperative fishing agreement among SCS nations with minimal risk of escalating the present situation to the level of war.

Challenges to Cooperation

Fisheries economists agree that when nations cooperate to optimize the use of depletable resources, total catch increases because stocks are maintained at high levels.3 However, economists have also demonstrated that nations deviate from this total catch maximization model because there is no clear way to divide the “cooperative surplus” among nations, defined as the excess catch above what’s attained under noncooperation.4 As a consequence, noncooperation leading to overexploitation has been observed time and again.5 The reasoning behind this is simple. If nations unilaterally pursue policies not agreeable to others, the sum of these policies will exceed the optimal cooperative policy, and stocks will become depleted.

The concept of a fair allocation of the cooperative surplus is particularly challenging in the SCS. Expansive claims based on historical discoveries and interpretations, United Nations-defined exclusive economic zones, and the occupation of islands and reefs afar from mainlands leads to a large degree of overlapping jurisdictions.6 The most extreme claim is that of China’s “nine-dash line,” encompassing 80 percent of the SCS.7 Aside from tangible issues of geography and historical discovery, a nation’s ideology can contribute to what’s perceived as “fair.” China views itself as a Middle Kingdom that ought to govern affairs in its area of the world, if not globally. This conflicts with the U.S. view that it occupies the position of global leadership and must “contain” China from becoming too influential.8 Thus, even if China could make a case that its geography, population, MLE capabilities, and so on, warrant a “fair” allocation encompassing its claimed 80 percent of the SCS, established U.S. policy would be to exert influence to alter this balance, which would enrich other SCS nations to the detriment of China.

Were the challenge of a fair allocation of the cooperative surplus to be solved, SCS nations would still face an MLE challenge as IUU fishing is prevalent in the SCS. The current situation under noncooperation is informative for understanding the extent of IUU fishing. The Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, an intergovernmental organization including all SCS nations other than China, estimates IUU fishing currently accounts for 8-16 percent of total catch.9 Much of this is Chinese fishing which China doesn’t consider IUU, but it would be naïve to assume that were China to enter a cooperative agreement that curtails its allowable catch, there would be a corresponding decrease in IUU fishing.  A cooperative agreement will place increased constraints on fishing, thus decreasing supply and increasing the incentive to fish illegally. For fishermen suddenly forced out of the legal fishing business, IUU fishing will be a logical, even if risky, line of work. Empirically, past agreements outside the SCS have seen this phenomenon occur.10 Thus, to address the MLE requirements brought by a constrained fishing environment, nations must also engage in security cooperation so MLE effectiveness can be maximized. IUU fishing can only be assumed to decrease following a cooperative agreement if SCS coast guards fully integrate their MLE efforts so there are no weak spots IUU fishermen can exploit.

The final challenge to cooperation is a conglomeration of territorial disputes and IUU fishing, along with China’s supremacy in MLE. China’s coast guard easily surpasses all other SCS nations combined in gross tonnage, with 190,000 tons of coast guard vessels of multiple types.11 In contrast, Vietnam and the Philippines possess 35,000 and 20,000 tons, respectively, while Indonesia possesses about 400 vessels compared to China’s 1,300.12 ISR and aircraft are both force multipliers in MLE and China has superiority in each of these.13 Thus, China possesses great leverage when bargaining over the cooperative surplus. 

Presently, noncooperation persists because China has calculated it is better off using its MLE strength to unilaterally impose its own laws in the SCS, rather than submitting to terms acceptable to the other bordering states. This strategy is evident in repeated instances of the Chinese Coast Guard intervening in fishing disputes with Vietnam near the Paracel Islands, with the Philippines near the Scarborough Shoal (approximately 472 NM from the Chinese mainland), and with Indonesia near Natuna (1151 NM).14 The problem with this unilateral Chinese strategy, aside from a lack of fairness, is that it has failed in the sense that overfishing persists. Despite its superiority in MLE, China hasn’t been able to reverse the observable trend of depleting stocks in the SCS.

In light of these issues, while geography and historical claims are immutable sources of conflict, MLE capabilities are mutable and can be employed by the U.S. to mitigate the threat of overfishing in the SCS. By providing MLE assistance to non-Chinese coast guards, the U.S. can, at minimum, assure China’s attempt to unilaterally control the SCS no longer appears feasible, and may even bring about a fully cooperative agreement.

Shaping the Conditions for Cooperation

An important notion from cooperative game theory is that when the right incentive structure is in place, players who would otherwise be in competition will form a “cooperative coalition” that is beneficial to all. The first objective of U.S. MLE assistance in the SCS should be to provide non-Chinese nations sufficient capabilities to police an area of the SCS that can provide a sustainable level of fish to all nations in the coalition. Lacking this, some nations may acquiesce to Chinese unilateralism as the best option. A fully cooperative agreement would include China, whose MLE capabilities would partially offset needed U.S. assistance to combat IUU fishing, and per economic theory total catch will increase as well. While Chinese cooperation can’t be assumed, it is highly desirable and MLE assistance should be directed toward convincing China the coalition can be an ally vice adversary.

While the coast guard figures cited earlier show a clear capabilities advantage for China, it is not an overwhelming one. Consider, for instance, disparities in population and hence demand for fish. Non-Chinese nations account for only 25 percent of the population bordering the SCS, so coalition MLE may only need to control a comparatively small section of it.15 Further, while China does possess superior air and ISR assets than other SCS nations, they still lag the U.S. in these areas.16 Aircraft and ISR are comparatively cheap relative to large end surface vessels. These facts make it seem promising the U.S. can cost-effectively close the MLE capabilities gap; looking at current coast guard and military aid budgets provides a useful heuristic to assess this more fully. China spent approximately $1.7 billion per year from 2011 through 2015 to modernize its coast guard. In contrast, the U.S. currently spends over $10 billion per year on its coast guard, while Vietnam and the Philippines each spend about $200 million.17 U.S. military aid for fiscal year 2019 allocated $30 million, $12 million, and zero dollars to the Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, respectively. The global mission to improve food security was allocated $518 million.18 Active participation by U.S. Coast Guard assets in the SCS has been virtually nonexistent, though in May 2019 they participated in a combined exercise with the Philippines, perhaps signaling willingness by the U.S. to invest more in MLE assistance.19

Given these figures it is clear a relatively small investment in the modernization of regional coast guards could go a long way. While federal budgeting is competitive and slow to change in the U.S., there are strong reasons to justify increased funding for MLE in the SCS. Aside from the general notion throughout the Department of Defense of a shift in emphasis toward INDOPACOM, there is a growing trend towards gray-zone operations where coast guards are better positioned than navies to play the central security role.20 Further, MLE assistance is ultimately intended to induce security cooperation with China to combat IUU fishing; successful cooperation on the comparatively benign issue of overfishing may pay dividends in resolving contentious issues closer to the level of war.

The above analysis makes it appear feasible the U.S. could provide the necessary MLE assistance to cordon off a section of the SCS sufficient to supply sustainable levels of fish to partners, and at a moderate cost. The problem, however, is that due to the migratory nature of fish this cordoned off area must be larger than what a simple calculation of fish per capita would suggest. Fish stocks intentionally left uncaught by the coalition will migrate to waters not policed by the coalition. In an idyllic world China wouldn’t deplete these migratory resources, but realistically overfishing should be expected as China disagrees with the fairness of the coalition’s policy. To account for expected Chinese excesses the coalition’s area must expand, so not only does required MLE assistance increase, but there is a risk of becoming too provocative and causing China to escalate hostilities to the level of conflict. It is therefore critical to assess the likelihoods of China joining an expanding coalition, and alternatively escalating to war.

The rationale for China joining the coalition in the face of U.S. MLE assistance is that, given the strengthened ability of the coalition to defend its waters, China’s strategy of unilaterally imposing its own laws for sustainable fishing will become clearly impractical. Under the current state of affairs China’s strategy isn’t working yet there’s still no sign of a shift, indicating they still believe aggressive unilateralism can work if they further advance their MLE capabilities. By advancing a regional coalition’s MLE toward first-world standards, U.S. partners can impose costs on Chinese unilateralism and hopefully encourage China to see cooperation as the best option. The suboptimality of unilateral MLE on the part of China is, however, not sufficient to assure cooperation. China has a third option, which is to escalate the dispute over fishing to the level of war. Fortunately, there are multiple reasons to believe China won’t take such action.

A comparison to a similar dispute over fishing laws involving China is informative. In the East China Sea (ECS), China and Japan have an ongoing dispute over fishing rights near the Senkaku Islands. While each continues to proclaim ownership of the Senkakus and surrounding waters, there have been far fewer provocative actions by China than seen in the SCS, and zero instances of the Chinese Coast Guard detaining Japanese fishermen.21 The limited hostilities in the ECS are likely the result of Japan fielding a peer coast guard to China’s.22 In fact, far from leading to war over the Senkakus, Japan’s ability to resist Chinese unilateralism led to an agreement between the two nations on both fishing constraints and MLE cooperation, which was signed in 1997.23

Despite the datapoint that Japan’s peer coast guard successfully curtailed Chinese unilateralism in the ECS, there is a justifiable fear that the interactive effects of China being curtailed in both the ECS and SCS would push it over the edge. It may consider failure to control either the SCS or ECS an unacceptable threat to its aim of becoming a global superpower and opt for war rather than cooperation.24

This is, however, unlikely due to the multitude of internal problems China currently faces that hinder its ability to wage a conventional war against U.S. partners. For example, China is facing a workforce crisis where cheap labor, which was the catalyst for its “economic miracle” that began in the late 1970s, is disappearing. Mortality rates, once in decline, are now on the rise in China.25 The United Nations’ Human Development Index for China also lags far behind first-world standards.26 All these factors negatively effect China’s ability to fund a prolonged, large-scale war. China does have escalation dominance over other SCS nations, so to signal to China that war would in fact be “prolonged” and “large-scale,” the U.S. must maintain its strong naval presence in the region as a sign of its commitment to fight a war if necessary.

Conclusion

U.S. MLE assistance in the SCS can mitigate Chinese unilateralism on fishing rights without provoking war, establish sustainable levels of fishing without Chinese cooperation, and may lead to a fully cooperative agreement with China to combat overfishing. Full cooperation has three key advantages, including a greater total catch, a reduced requirement for the U.S. to provide MLE assistance, and a reduction in the threat of war, even if this is small in the noncooperative case. It is therefore in the U.S.’ and partners’ interests to provide fair terms for an agreement with China rather than one that appears exploitative and pursuant of a containment policy. An agreement that is most likely to be accepted is one that has clearly defined rules on who can fish where and how much, how random fluctuations in catches will be remedied through trade, as well as complete transparency in how these determinations are made.

Michael Perry is a PhD student at George Mason University studying applications of game theory in the security environment. He is also a U.S. Navy Reservist and has deployed to Singapore, Bahrain, and Rota, Spain. The views expressed in this article are his own.

References

1. Zhang, “Fisheries Cooperation in the South China Sea: Evaluating the Options.” Marine Policy 89 (February 2018): 67–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2017.12.014.

2. Hsiao, Amanda. “Opportunities for Fisheries Enforcement Cooperation in the South China Sea.” Marine Policy, June 2019, 103569. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103569.

3. Munro, Gordon R. “Game Theory and the Development of Resource Management Policy: The Case of International Fisheries.” Environment and Development Economics 14, no. 1 (February 2009): 7–27. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355770X08004671.

4. Kaitala, Veijo, and Marko Lindroos. “Sharing the Benefits of Cooperation in High Seas Fisheries: A Characteristic Function Game Approach.” Natural Resource Modeling 11, no. 4 (1998): 275–99.

5. Munro, Gordon R. “Game Theory and the Development of Resource Management Policy: The Case of International Fisheries.” Environment and Development Economics 14, no. 1 (February 2009): 7–27. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1355770X08004671.

6. Stearns, Scott. “Challenging Beijing in the South China Sea.” Voice of America. State of Affairs (blog), July 31, 2012. https://blogs.voanews.com/state-department-news/2012/07/31/challenging-beijing-in-the-south-china-sea/.

7. “Coastguard Here to Help, US Says to South China Sea Nations.” South China Morning Post, July 11, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3014006/coastguard-here-help-says-us-south-china-sea-nations.

8. Goodman, Melvin. “The Twin Dangers of Exceptionalism and Mindless Bi-Partisanship.” Counter Punch, June 13, 2019. https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/06/13/the-twin-dangers-of-exceptionalism-and-mindless-bi-partisanship/.

9. “Catch Documentation and Traceability.” Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center, n.d. https://www.seafdec-oceanspartnership.org/catch-documentation-and-traceability/.

10. Zhang, Hongzhou. “Chinese Fishermen in Disputed Waters: Not Quite a ‘People’s War.’” Marine Policy 68 (June 2016): 65–73. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2016.02.018.

11. Morris, Lyle J. “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2 (2017): 38.

12. Morris, “KPLP Director Asks for Effective and Efficient Patrol Boat Management.” Berita Trans, May 7, 2018. http://beritatrans.com/2018/05/07/direktur-kplp-minta-pengelolaan-kapal-patroli-efektif-dan-efisien/. 

Erickson, Andrew S. “Numbers Matter: China’s Three ‘Navies’ Each Have the World’s Most Ships.” National Interest, February 2018.

13. Morris, “The Era of Coast Guards in the Asia- Pacific Is Upon Us”; Morris, “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.”

14. “Are Maritime Law Enforcement Forces Destabilizing Asia?” ChinaPower: Unpacking the Complexity of China’s Rise, 2019. https://chinapower.csis.org/maritime-forces-destabilizing-asia/.

15. “World Population Prospects.” United Nations, 2019. https://population.un.org/wpp/Download/Standard/Population/.

16. Morris, Lyle J. “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2 (2017): 38.

17.Ibid.

18. “Congressional Budget Justification:  Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs, Fiscal Year 2019.” U.S. Department of State, February 12, 2018.

19. Jennings, Ralph. “Coast Guard Gives US New Tool in Disputed South China Sea.” Voice of America, May 20, 2019. https://www.voanews.com/east-asia/coast-guard-gives-us-new-tool-disputed-south-china-sea.

20. “The Era of Coast Guards in the Asia- Pacific Is Upon Us.” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), CSIS (March 8, 2017). https://amti.csis.org/era-coast-guards-asia-pacific-upon-us/.

21. Morris, Lyle J. “Blunt Defenders of Sovereignty – The Rise of Coast Guards in East and Southeast Asia.” Naval War College Review 70, no. 2 (2017): 38.

22. Ibid.

23. Hsiao, Amanda. “Opportunities for Fisheries Enforcement Cooperation in the South China Sea.” Marine Policy, June 2019, 103569. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103569.

24. Phillips, Tom. “Xi Jinping Heralds ‘new Era’ of Chinese Power at Communist Party Congress.” The Guardian, October 18, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/18/xi-jinping-speech-new-era-chinese-power-party-congress.

25. Chomsky, Noam. “‘Losing’ the World: American Decline in Perspective, Part 1.” Tom Dispatch, February 14, 2012. www.tomdispatch.com/post/175502/tomgram%3A_noam_chomsky%2C_hegemony_and_its_dilemmas/.

26. “Global Human Development Indicators.” United Nations, 2018. http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries.

Featured Image: Fisherman Shi Renping sails a fishing vessel towards a deepwater fish farming base near Meiji Reef of the Nansha Islands of China, July 17, 2016. (Xinhua/Zhao Yingquan)

False Assumptions May Lead to Counterproductive U.S. Policy in the South China Sea

By Mark J. Valencia

In his piece, Mr. Pham “lays out recommended ways and means that Washington can regain and maintain the strategic initiative in the Indo-Pacific.” However many of his recommendations are based on false assumptions and if implemented are likely to be ineffective and counterproductive.

Mr. Pham fears that “years of American acquiescence and accommodation may have eroded the international rule of law and global norms; diminished the regional trust and confidence in U.S. preeminence, presence, and constancy; weakened some of the U.S. regional alliances and partnerships; undermined Washington’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership; and perhaps even emboldened Beijing to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence.” But the rapid decline of U.S. soft power in the region is not due as much to “American acquiescence and accommodation” to China as it is to American political arrogance, cultural chauvinism, and a general lack of respect for its allies and ‘friends’ in the region  and their peoples. Its hypocrisy, interference in domestic politics, and support of brutal dictators did not help. It is now beginning to experience the inevitable blowback from this attitude and behavior and its reign as regional hegemon may be coming to an end. It may well eventually be replaced by China in the region, but for Mr. Pham to assert that China will attain “global preeminence” is premature at best. Indeed, if China does not learn from the American experience, it may well repeat its mistakes and suffer a similar fate.

Mr. Pham asserts that “Washington cannot back down now in the SCS. To do so would further embolden Beijing to expand and accelerate its desperate campaign to control the disputed and contested strategic waterway through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year…”  He assumes first that China can ‘control’ the South China Sea and two that such ‘control’ would threaten commercial freedom of navigation. But as Ralph Cossa, President of Pacific Forum CSIS, says, there is little to worry about, at least for the U.S. :“The South China Sea is not and will not be a Chinese lake and the Chinese, even with artificial islands, cannot dominate the sea or keep the U.S. Navy out of it.”  According to retired Admiral and former Director of U.S. National Intelligence Dennis Blair, “The Spratlys are 900 miles away from China for God’s sake. Those things have no ability to defend themselves in any sort of military sense. The Philippines and the Vietnamese could put them out of action, much less us.” More to the point, retired Admiral Michael McDevitt of the center for Naval Analyses asks skeptically, “What vital U.S. interest has been compromised? Shipping continues uninterrupted, the U.S. continues to ignore… their requirement for prior approval, our MDT with Manila remains in force…”

Regarding freedom of navigation, Mr. Pham and I have debated this before. I will only reiterate here that the two countries – one a ratifier of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – which elaborates the concept – and one not – differ on what activities are and are not encompassed by the term. China has not threatened commercial freedom of navigation nor is it likely to do so in peacetime. But the U.S. and Mr. Pham cleverly conflate the freedom of commercial navigation with the freedom to conduct provocative intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) probes and then argues that when China challenges these probes it is violating “freedom of navigation.” Mr. Pham ignores the problem that because the Convention was a “package deal,” non-ratifiers like the U.S. cannot credibly or legitimately  pick and choose which provisions they wish to abide by, deem them customary law, and unilaterally interpret and enforce them to their benefit. This is especially so regarding the EEZ regime which UNCLOS introduces as sui generis, and which –contrary to U.S. military advice given to its naval officers – does have some restrictions on “freedom of navigation.” They include the duty to pay “due regard” to the rights of the coastal state including its marine scientific research consent and environmental protection regimes protecting as well as its national security. Moreover, China and the U.S. disagree on the meaning of key terms in UNCLOS relevant to the freedom of navigation and which are not defined in the Convention. Besides “due regard” these terms include  “other internationally lawful uses of the sea”, “abuse of rights”, “peaceful use/purpose”, and “marine scientific research.” The point is that the UNCLOS “rules” regarding freedom of navigation are not “agreed.” 

Another of Mr. Pham’s major assumptions is that “Washington has a moral and global obligation of leadership to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder…” The U.S. is no longer the world’s moral leader – if it ever was – certainly not from the perspective of China and much of Asia – if not the world. Moreover Mr. Pham’s statement reflects the cultural arrogance that has drawn the U.S. into endless wars—and should be disregarded on that basis alone.

These false assumptions are accompanied by several misleading statements. For example Mr. Pham alleges that China broke  “a 2002 agreement with the ASEAN not to change any geographic features in the SCS”,  and “…the 2015 agreement between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama to not militarize these Chinese-occupied features.”

First, the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) does not contain such language and Mr. Pham is apparently interpreting its language for his own purposes. His interpretation is not shared by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan. All have altered the features they occupy to some degree since the agreement on the DOC. Second, according to China, President Xi Jinping agreed to no such thing. This statement repeats a biased interpretation of China’s President Xi Jinping statement regarding the “militarization” of the features. The original quote in Chinese was translated into English as “Relevant construction activities that China are (sic) undertaking in the island of South (sic)–Nansha (Spratly) Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend [emphasis added] to pursue militarization.” That is considerably more ambiguous than Mr. Pham’s interpretation. Chinese spokespersons have since implied that if the U.S. continues its ISR probes, exercises, and Freedom of Navigation Operations challenging China’s claims there, China will prepare to defend itself. Given that the U.S. has continued these missions, it should come as no surprise that China has responded as it said it would.

Based on false assumptions, Mr. Pham essentially recommends U.S. military confrontation of China in the South China Sea. Such confrontation could lead to war—on behalf of others’ disputed claims to ownership of tiny features and resources there. That would not be in the core national security interest of the U.S.

Mark J. Valencia is an Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

Featured Image: Vietnam’s flag flies over the fortified Da Tay Islands in the Spratlys Archipelago. (Reuters)

China’s Claim to the Spratly Islands is Just a Mistake

This article is an adaptation of an academic publication by Bill Hayton published in ‘Modern China’ as ‘The Modern Origins of China’s South China Sea Claims: Maps, Misunderstandings, and the Maritime Geobody.’ A version of this article was published in Vietnamese by BBC and may be read here.

By Bill Hayton

The South China Sea is a dangerous place because of the layering of several different struggles on top of one another. There are struggles over the future of the world order, struggles between regional powers, and struggles over maritime resources. But underlying them all is a knot of territorial disputes over a few hundred tiny rocks and reefs. Given how much attention the disputes currently attract, it is surprising how little attention has been paid to their origins. A few flawed accounts were written several decades ago but more evidence has come to light since then and it is time to revise the conventional wisdom. Governments like to pretend that their claims to the hundreds of rocks and reefs in the sea are historical and logical. However, after several years of studying them, it is clear that this is far from true.

The focus of most of the current trouble in the South China Sea is the Spratly Islands and a few underwater features that are closer to the coasts of Vietnam and Borneo. These are a very long way from the Chinese mainland and China has never made clear the precise origins of its claim to them. My own research – just published in the academic journal ‘Modern China’ – leads me to conclude that the Chinese claim only emerged because of some poor translation and bad map-making during the 1930s. My conclusion is that China’s claim to the Spratly Islands is actually a mistake.

The First Claim

The story of China’s claims in the South China Sea began in 1907 with the discovery of a Japanese merchant digging up petrified bird droppings on the island of Pratas (between Hong Kong and Taiwan). Nishizawa Yoshiji was one of many Japanese entrepreneurs mining guano for fertilizer all over the Pacific. However, there were rumors that Japan was also planning to build a naval base on Pratas and that concerned the United States and its newly-acquired colony in the Philippines. The American government informed officials in Beijing in late 1907 but it took well over a year before a Chinese ship was sent to investigate. In March 1909, Chinese officials confirmed Nishizawa’s presence. That triggered large protests in southern China and a boycott of Japanese products. The Japanese government agreed to negotiations, which eventually led to Japan recognizing Chinese sovereignty over Pratas.

However, at the same time, the southern Chinese authorities learned about the existence of the Paracel Islands, apparently for the first time, and became concerned that Japan might try to annex them. This led to an expedition in May and June 1909 during which China formally claimed sovereignty over the Paracels for the first time. The Chinese ships spent three days among the islands firing cannon and planting flags before returning home. However, it was immediately clear to the expedition leaders that the Paracels were not going to deliver any riches. Newspaper accounts mention a plan to turn them into a penal colony but within weeks the authorities had completely lost interest in the islands. They did not return until the 1920s.

The next major incident in the South China Sea created complete confusion – a muddle that infected the earlier academic accounts of the Chinese claim and still affects historical discussions to this day. In December 1931 France – the colonial power in Indochina – claimed sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and, nine months later, China protested. In July 1933, while the two governments were still arguing over the Paracels, France also announced the annexation of six of the Spratly Islands. This led to great confusion in China. It is clear from official documents and newspapers of the time that the Chinese authorities did not know the difference between the Spratlys and the Paracels. They thought that the islands that France had just annexed were the same that China had claimed in 1909. It took several weeks for the confusion to be cleared up. During the discussions the Chinese Navy even sent a telegram to the Chinese Foreign Ministry asserting that the Spratly Islands did not exist! The situation was only cleared up with the help of maps provided by American officials in Manila. In the end, the Chinese government decided that it could not prove a claim to the Spratlys and so did not protest against France’s actions.

However, this confusion led the Chinese government to instruct its ‘Land and Water Maps Review Committee’ to investigate the situation. Among the committee’s other tasks, it inspected and translated maps to show which islands were the Paracels and which were the Spratlys. It also gave Chinese names to them – but these were simply translations or transliterations. North Danger Reef became Beixian 北險礁 (a translation from English). Spratly Island became Si-ba-la-tuo 斯巴拉脫島 (a transliteration of the name of the English sea captain, Richard Spratly), and Luconia Shoals was transliterated as Lu-kang-ni-a 盧康尼亞滩. My own research suggests that the list of names the committee translated was probably taken from the China Sea Directory, published in 1906 by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office.

However, in the process, the committee made some mistakes. It seems to have been particularly confused by the English nautical terms “bank” and “shoal.” Both mean an area of shallow sea—the former describes a raised area of seabed, the latter is a nautical expression derived from Old English meaning “shallow.” However, the committee chose to translate both as tan 灘, which has the ambiguous translation of “sandbank,” a feature that might be above or below water.

The committee gave one particular underwater feature, James Shoal, the Chinese name Zengmu tan 曾姆滩, and another, Vanguard Bank, the name Qianwei tan 前衛滩. Zengmu is the transliteration of “James,” Qianwei is a translation of “vanguard,” and tan is the translation of “bank” and “shoal.” This translation choice has had major consequences, as we shall see. Why it decided to make a particular point of selecting these two underwater features for its list is also something of a mystery.

My hypothesis is that, since they did not undertake any of their own hydrographic surveys, committee members were completely guided by the maps that they were copying. One map that would have been part of any standard collection at the time was one produced by Edward Stanford Ltd. of London. The company’s 1918 map entitled Asiatic Archipelago gives particular prominence to both James Shoal and Vanguard Bank and to most of the other features listed by the committee (see Figure 1). I suspect that this map also guided the committee’s choices about which features to give Chinese names to.

Figure 1. Asiatic Archipelago, showing James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as underwater features (circles added by author). Map published by Edward Stanford Ltd., London, 1918 (British Library shelfmark Maps 88715.

In 1936, Bai Meichu 白眉初, a founder of the China Geography Society, used the committee’s information to publish his New Atlas of China’s Construction 中華建設新圖. Taking his cue from the committee’s mistranslation, he made a massive mistake. He drew the underwater James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as islands. He then added a U-shaped line around the South China Sea as far south as James Shoal and as far southwest as Vanguard Bank (see Figure 2). Bai’s meaning was clear—the line marked his “scientific” understanding of China’s rightful territory. Because of his mistakes the James Shoal and Vanguard Bank would later became the limits of China’s claim in the South China Sea. This was the very first time that such a line had been drawn on a Chinese map. It was not a state document though; it was the work of a private individual.

Figure 2. Map from New Atlas of China’s Construction (1936) published by Bai Meichu. James Shoal is labeled as Zengmu tan 曾姆滩, and Vanguard Bank as Qianwei tan 前衛滩. Both are drawn as islands with solid outlines and colored infill and are encompassed by the Bai’s boundary line. (Highlighting circles added by author) Source: Beijing Normal University Newspaper no. 295 (May 10, 2012), http://bnu.cuepa.cn/show_more.php?doc_id=613549.

Bai added some other innovations, too. He also drew the underwater features of the Macclesfield Bank (in the center of the South China Sea) as islands. This may be the reason why, to this day, the Chinese state talks about four “archipelagos” in the sea, even though one of them demonstrably does not exist!

The Republic of China still did not claim the Spratlys, however. As late as 1943, the ROC Ministry of Information published its China Handbook 1937–43, a comprehensive guide to the country’s geography, history, politics, and economics. On its opening page it stated that “the territory of the Republic of China extends from [the Sajan Mountains in the north] . . . to Triton Island of the Paracel Group.”

This view of China’s maritime territory would change dramatically over the following three years. It seems likely that this change was facilitated, perhaps even orchestrated, by two of Bai Meichu’s students. In 1927, while he was chair of the Department of History and Geography at Beijing Normal University, Bai taught Fu Jiaojin 傅角今 and Zheng Ziyue 鄭資約. After the Second World War, they were hired by the Chinese Ministry of Interior to advise the government on its territorial boundaries. They drew the government maps in 1946 and 1947 that led to the official Chinese claim in the South China Sea. Fu and Zhang used Bai’s map and his ‘U-shaped line’ to guide them. Thus China would claim the underwater features of the James Shoal and Vanguard Bank as its territory. This makes no sense at all – except if you understand this strange piece of history. The Chinese claim is the result of a series of mistakes.

In October 1947 the ROC Ministry of the Interior renamed the islands within its new claim. Most of the 1935 translations and transliterations were replaced by new, grand-sounding and more “Chinese” titles. For example, the Chinese name for Spratly Island was changed from Si-ba-la-tuo to Nanwei 南威島 (Noble South) and Scarborough Shoal was changed from Si-ka-ba-luo 斯卡巴洛礁 (the transliteration) to Minzhu jiao 民主礁 (Democracy Reef). Vanguard Bank’s Chinese name was changed from Qianwei tan to Wan’an tan 萬安灘 (Ten Thousand Peace Bank). This process was repeated across the archipelagos. The ministry seems to have recognized its earlier problem with translating “shoal” at this time because it coined the word ansha 暗沙, literally “hidden sand,” as a neologism to use instead of tan 灘 in the names of several features, including James Shoal, which was renamed Zengmu ansha.

It was not until 1948, therefore, that the Chinese state formally extended its territorial claim in the South China Sea to the Spratly Islands, as far south as James Shoal. Clearly something had changed in the years between July 1933, when the Republic of China government was unaware that the Spratly Islands existed, and April 1947, when it could “reaffirm” that the southernmost point of its territory was James Shoal.

Conclusion

Although the Chinese government likes to say that it has an ancient and historical claim to the reefs and rocks in the South China Sea, a detailed examination of evidence shows that it actually emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. It also changed during a 40-year period 1907-1947. The whole process was filled with confusion and misunderstanding. A few mistakes by a small number of poorly-informed Chinese officials and academics back in the 1930s have created lingering confusion that still poisons the politics of Southeast Asia to this day.

Bill Hayton is an Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. He is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia and Vietnam:Rising Dragon.

Featured Image: Satellite image taken in June 2015 of China’s land reclamation efforts on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. (AMTI/CSIS)