Tag Archives: South China Sea

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)

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules

By Tuan N. Pham

More Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism are coming. In January, this author’s article in a separate publication assessed strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018; and forecasted that China will likely further expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Recently, three worrying developments have emerged that oblige the United States to further challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy; reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power; and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream). 

Near-Arctic State

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the BRI” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.” Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other material resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism.     

Beijing rationalizes and justifies this expansive political, economic, and legal stance as “the natural conditions of the Arctic and their changes have a direct impact on China’s climate system and ecological environment, and, in turn, on its economic interests in agriculture, forestry, fishery, marine industry, and other sectors.” In other words, China stakes its tenuous Arctic claims on geographic proximity; effects of climate change on the country; expanding cross-regional diplomacy with extant Arctic states; and the broad legal position that although non-Arctic countries are not in a position to claim “territorial sovereignty”, they do have the right to engage in scientific research, navigation, and economic activities. And while vaguely underscoring that it will respect and comply with international law like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a “lawful and rational matter”, Beijing was quite explicit and emphatic in the white paper that it will use Arctic resources to “pursue its own national interests.”

There is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term. Furthermore, as noted by Grant Newsham, the phrase itself is a representative exemplification of how China incrementally and quietly builds concepts, principles, vocabulary, and finally justification for pursuing its national interests and global ambitions. Consider the following evolution that is typical of how key elements of China’s strategic lexicon come to the fore like “near-Artic state and the South China Sea (SCS) has been part of China since ancient times”:

Step 1 – Term appears in an obscure Chinese academic journal
Step 2 – Term appears in a regional Chinese newspaper
Step 3 – Term is used at a Chinese national conference or seminar
Step 4 – Term is used in Chinese authoritative media
Step 5 – Term is used at international conferences and academic exchanges held in China
Step 6 – China frequently refers to the term in foreign media and at international conferences
Step 7 – China issues a policy white paper stating its positions, implied rights, and an implied threat to defend those rights
Step 8 – China maintains that this has always been Beijing’s policy

 Beijing’s official policy positions on Antarctica are less clear and coherent, and appear to be still evolving. The closest sort of policy statement was made last year by China’s State Oceanic Administration when it issued a report (pseudo white paper) entitled “China’s Antarctic Activities (Antarctic Business in China).” The report detailed many of Beijing’s scientific activities in the southernmost continent, and vaguely outlined China’s Antarctic strategy and agenda with few specifics. All in all, Beijing doesn’t have a formal claim over Antarctic territory (and the Antarctic Treaty forbids any new claims), but nonetheless, China has incrementally expanded its presence and operations over the years. The Chinese government currently spends more than any other Antarctic state on new infrastructure such as bases, planes, and icebreakers. The expanding presence in Antarctica is embraced by Beijing as a way and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s Antarctic resource and governance rights.  

South “China” Sea

On February 5, released imagery of the Spratly archipelago suggests that China has almost completely transformed their seven occupied reefs – disputed by the other claimants – into substantial Chinese military outposts, in a bid to dominate the contested waters and despite a 2002 agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) not to change any geographic features in the SCS. At the same time, Beijing has softened the provocative edges of its aggressive militarization with generous pledges of investments to the other claimants and promising talks of an ASEAN framework for negotiating a code of conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that China is determined to finish its militarization and then present the other claimants with a fait d’accompli before sitting down to negotiate the CoC.

The photographs show that Beijing has developed 72 acres in the SCS in 2017 and over 3200 acres in the past four years; and redirected its efforts from dredging and reclaiming land to building infrastructure (airstrips, helipads, radar and communications facilities, control towers, hangars, etc.) necessary for future deployment of aircraft to project Chinese power across the shipping routes through which trillions of dollars of global trade flows each year. On February 8, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that it recently sent advanced Su-35 fighter aircraft to take part in a joint combat patrol over the SCS.

An aerial view of the Fiery Cross Reef, now a 2.8 sq km artificial island. (Photo: CCTV)

At the end of the day, these latest images will not change Beijing’s agenda and plans for the SCS. They do however provide a revealing glimpse of what is happening now and what may happen in the near future on these disputed and contested geographic features (rocks and reefs) – and it sure does not look benign and benevolent as China claims.     

At the 54th Munich Security Conference from February 16-18, the Chinese delegation participated in an open panel discussion on the SCS and took the opportunity to publicly refute the prevailing conventional interpretation of international maritime law. They troublingly stated for the first known time in an international forum that “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” This may be that long-anticipated policy outgrowth from the brazen militarization of the SCS and the latest regression of the previous legal and diplomatic position that “all countries have unimpeded access to navigation and flight activities in the SCS.” Now that China has the supposed ways and means to secure the strategic lines of communication, Beijing may start incrementally restricting military ships and aircraft operating in its perceived backyard, and then slowly and quietly expand to commercial ships and aircraft transiting the strategic waterway. If so, this will be increasingly problematic as the People’s Liberation Army Navy continues to operate in distant waters and in proximity to other nations’ coastlines. China will then have no choice but to eventually address the legal and diplomatic inconsistency between policy and operations – and either pragmatically adjust its policy or continue to assert its untenable authority to regulate military activities in its claimed exclusive economic zones, in effect a policy of “do as I say, not do as I do.”

In the public diplomacy domain, Beijing is advancing the narrative that Washington no longer dominates the SCS, is to blame for Chinese militarization of the SCS, and is destabilizing the SCS with more provocative moves. On January 22, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an op-ed article cautioning American policymakers to not be too confident about the U.S. role in the SCS nor too idealistic about how much ASEAN nations will support U.S. policy. Consider the following passage: “For ASEAN countries, it’s much more important to avoid conflicts with Beijing than obtain small favors from Washington. Times are gone when the United States played a predominant role in the SCS. China has exercised restraint against U.S. provocations in the SCS, but there are limits. If the U.S. doesn’t stop its provocations, China will militarize the islands sooner or later. Then Washington will be left with no countermeasure options and suffer complete humiliation.” On February 25, the same state-owned media outlet wrote that “China should install more military facilities, such as radar, aircraft, and more coastguard vessels in the SCS to cope with provocative moves by the United States”; and predicted that the “Sino-U.S. relations will see more disputes this year which will not be limited to SCS, as the United States tries to deal with a rising China.”

On January 17, USS Hopper (DDG-70) conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it passed within 12nm of Scarborough Shoal. This was the fifth U.S. naval operation in the last six months to challenge China’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS. The Chinese media largely portrayed the operation as the latest in a series of recent U.S. actions intended to signal a new policy shift consistent with the new muscular U.S. National Security Strategy and U.S. National Defense Strategy and reflective of growing U.S. misgivings over China’s rise. The Chinese media is also increasingly depicting Beijing as having the upper hand in the SCS at the expense of rival Washington; and that U.S. FONOPs are now pointless since China has multiple options to effectively respond and there’s very little the United States can do about it.

Sharp Power (Influence Operations) Growing Sharper

In late-January, African Union (AU) officials accused Beijing of electronically bugging its Chinese-built headquarters building, hacking the computer systems, downloading confidential information, and sending the data back to servers in China. A claim that Beijing vehemently denies, calling the investigative report by the Le Monde “ridiculous, preposterous, and groundless…intended to put pressure on relations between Beijing and the African continent.” The fact that the alleged hack remained undisclosed for a year after discovery and the AU publicly refuted the allegation as Western propaganda speaks to China’s dominant relationships with the African states. During an official visit to Beijing shortly after the report’s release, the Chairman of the AU Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat stated “AU is an international political organization that doesn’t process secret defense dossiers…AU is an administration and I don’t see what interest there is to China to offer up a building of this type and then to spy.” Not surprisingly, Fakit received assurances from his Chinese counterpart afterwards on five key areas of future AU-China cooperation – capacity building, infrastructure construction, peace and security, public health and disease prevention, and tourism and aviation.

African Union Conference Center (Andrew Moore via Wikimedia Commons)

The suspected hack underscores the high risk that African nations take in allowing Chinese information technology companies such prominent roles in developing their nascent telecommunications backbones. The AU has since put new cybersecurity measures in place, and predictably declined Beijing’s offer to configure its new servers. Additionally, if the report is true, more than just the AU may have been compromised. Other government buildings were constructed by China throughout the African continent. Beijing signed lucrative contracts to build government buildings in Zimbabwe, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malawi, Seychelles, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, and Sierra Leone.

On January 23, President Xi Jinping presided over a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leading group meeting to discuss how better to deepen the overall reform of the central government. He emphasized that 2018 will be the first year to implement the spirit of last year’s 19th National Party Congress and the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the West and integration into the global economy. The meeting reviewed and approved several resolutions (policy documents) to include the “Guiding Opinions on Promoting the Reform and Development of Confucius Institute.” The new policy synchronized the promotion of reform and development of the Confucius Institute; and directed both to focus on the “building of a powerful socialist country with Chinese characteristics, serving Beijing’s major powers diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, deepening the reform and innovation, improving the institutional mechanisms, optimizing the distribution structure, strengthening the building efforts, and improving the quality of education” – so as to let the latter (Confucius Institute) become an important force of communication between China and foreign countries.

The seemingly benign and benevolent Confucius Institute is quite controversial, and is now receiving greater scrutiny within the various host countries for covertly influencing public opinions in advancement of Chinese national interests. In the United States, FBI Director Christopher Wray announced on February 23 that his agency is taking “investigative steps” regarding the Confucius Institutes, which operate at more than 100 American colleges and universities. These Chinese government-funded centers allegedly teach a whitewashed version of China, and serve as outposts of Beijing’s overseas intelligence network.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, as part of the greater efforts and activities of the United Front – a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party objectives. He stressed that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…It is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Ultimately, he hopes these overseas Chinese will collectively cooperate to counter political foes of the CCP, advance the party’s political agenda, and help realize broader Chinese geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI.

Conclusion

The aforementioned troubling and destabilizing developments egregiously challenge the rules-based global order and U.S. global influence. Like China’s illegal seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and Beijing’s blatant disregard for the landmark ruling by the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016, they further erode the trust and confidence in the international rule of law (and norms) and undermine America’s traditional role as the guarantor of the global economy and provider of regional security, stability, and leadership. If the international community and the United States do not push back now, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence unchallenged and unhindered. 

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual high-level general debate of the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, the United States, Sept. 28, 2015. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei)