The specter of nationalism in the Far East looms over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. China and Japan have increased their civilian and military presence around the islands and continue retaliatory actions and declarations. History in the region has few examples of such situations concluding amicably.
However realist or idealist one’s perspective, there remains significant room for de-escalation and peaceful resolution. The path to finding a solution has been the focus of many academics, policy experts, and the media with two scenarios offered in the commentary.
First is what amounts to a Grand Bargain: China cedes their claims in the East China Sea to Japan in return for Japan’s support of China’s South China Sea claims. Those who believe this the most likely outcome are those who give deference to China’s long-view strategies. While China appears to have the patience and political structure to execute strategies with time horizons far beyond those of the United States, a Grand Bargain would be readily discerned and countered as it ultimately relies on the United States, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, and others to concede interests or territorial claims to China. That makes for a strategy not only with a long time horizon but also with very long odds.
The second scenario is that China succeeds to some degree in pressing its claims with Japan, using the dispute in the East China Sea as a proving ground for strategies in the south. Winning territorial concessions from Japan, China’s primary regional competitor, would not only validate its strategies, it would also strengthen China’s position when dealing with weaker competitors bordering the 10-dash line in the South China Sea. Those who predict this outcome tend to believe China will not relinquish any claims. This may be a bit too binary. First, the territorial disputes in the two regions have very different histories, interests, and actors. Second, a resolution seen as offering China concessions in the East China Sea could counter-productively strengthen the resolve of the actors disputing China’s claims in the South China Sea.
However, there is another possible scenario. China could exploit customary international law to its advantage, creating a precedent in the East China Sea simplifies the complexities surrounding the 10-dash line in the South China Sea. The precedent that best serves Chinese interests is that a country with administrative control over disputed islands exercises economic rights surrounding the territory, even if that country is Japan. With China in a strong position to enforce administrative control over the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal, a precedent connecting administrative control of disputed territory to economic rights would greatly benefit China.
So, what else needs to happen to make this other potential scenario a reality? Nothing. If China continues to bluster about the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Japan continues to retain administrative control and enforce fishing laws in what would be the territory’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the precedent is established. Only time is needed for this version of status quo to be considered customary international law. Interestingly, this path finds a convergence between the long view and expansionist proponents. China could get access to a lot more territory and natural resources if it is willing to ‘lose a battle to win the war’.
Ryan Leary is a U.S. naval officer and Federal Executive Fellow at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any command.
When discussing China’s strategy in the South China Sea it is first necessary to begin by asserting that there is in fact a strategy, which is readily discernible from public documents and pronouncements. There has been some disagreement over the degree of coordination between operational units and the central government, with some analysts questioning if Beijing actually has a strategy in these areas, while others have contended that China does in fact have a strategy that it regards as increasingly successful in achieving its desired objectives. According to Peter Dutton, the Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College, this strategy is centered on the use of “non-militarized coercion” that has provided a means for controlled escalation.
While the execution of this strategy may have at times in the past been poorly implemented due to the vague and developing nature of China’s strategic goals, there has been a concerted effort since and even before Xi Jinping came into power to at least increase coordination and oversight, if not clarify the strategic objectives themselves. This increased coordination and oversight is however primarily intended to better control the potential for escalation, and is part of a wider-evolving Chinese strategy to better protect what it views as its “maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea. These new objectives do little more than consolidate previous strategic guidance, suggesting that existing patterns of expanded Chinese maritime presence and corresponding incidents at sea are more likely to persist than diminish in the years ahead, though they may be managed more closely by Beijing.
Since 2007 Chinese maritime law enforcement (MLE) agencies have been conducting what were termed “rights protection” (weiquan) missions in the South China Sea, which slowly expanded in number and intensity over time, leading to an increase in operational confrontations and incidents at sea between not only China and its neighbors, but also the United States. This shift in tactics was readily evident in the composition of Chinese forces involved in these confrontations: where previously PLA-Navy forces had been primarily involved, according to a report by the U.S. Center for Naval Analysis (CNA), by 2009 the majority involved Chinese MLE agencies.
While it is not known if the “rights protection” missions were at the time approved by key decision making bodies such as the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) or the Central Military Commission (CMC), a number of recent developments suggest that they were at some point subsequently approved at the highest levels of the Chinese government and are likely to form a central focus of Chinese strategy going forward. The work report of the 18th Party Congress at which the Chinese leadership transition occurred, defined China for the first time as a “maritime power,” one that will “firmly uphold its maritime rights and interests.” Work reports from the Party Congress play a central role in determining the character and content of Chinese strategy going forward, and the work report from the most recent would suggest that not only does China increasingly see itself as a maritime power, but that maritime “rights protection” missions will increasingly become a central component of China’s approach in the South China Sea (SCS).
Important institutional changes in line with these objectives had already begun to be implemented even before the Party Congress occurred, with the central leadership creating several leading small groups to oversee and improve coordination of maritime rights protection in the SCS. The Maritime Rights Office, a leading small group now headed by Xi Jinping, was created in 2012 reportedly to “coordinate agencies within China.” The Maritime Rights Office falls under the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (FALSG), which is ‘widely believed to be the central policy making group’ in the Chinese Party apparatus. According to Bonnie Glaser, an analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), the Maritime Rights Office includes “over 10 representatives from various units, including several from the PLA,” and is in charge of implementing guidelines handed down by the PBSC. During the same talk, Ms. Glaser also noted the existence of a second leading small group, created specifically to handle issues in the South China Sea, which is also now headed by Xi Jinping.
That there had already been a discernible push by the central leadership in Beijing to improve coordination and oversight before the incident off the Natunas in March of 2013 calls into question analysis suggesting that a lack of coordination or oversight from Beijing is the central factor explaining Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. But this has never been as sufficient an explanation as some have implied, and it seems increasingly plausible that Beijing’s behavior can better be explained as part of a broader strategy. This strategy is evident in the decision of the central leadership to expand and utilize Chinese MLE agencies to more assertively protect what China considers to be its maritime rights and interests in disputed areas, often through the use of non-militarized coercion.
This non-militarized coercion includes not only deterrent but also compellent dimensions, as was clearly demonstrated in the recent incidents involving Indonesia. Attempts by China to compel its neighbors into accepting its ‘historic rights’ in the SCS pose a potential threat to the international rules and norms embodied in UNCLOS, and to the extent that China’s “maritime rights and interests” are defined based on historical rather than legal grounds, an implicit challenge to the status quo.
While a more militarized approach by China in the East China Sea has become increasingly evident with the recent creation of the Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) there, the non-military and military instruments of power have always been closely intertwined in Beijing’s evolving strategy. Military power has long been more visible in the ECS disputes, with serious incidents occurring involving naval vessels there. At the same time however, China has been systematically and proactively asserting maritime jurisdiction through an enlarged and more aggressive MLE presence around the Senkakus, in an effort to ‘establish a new reality on the sea,’ as Scott Cheney-Peters of CIMSEC put it.
In addition to the Maritime Rights Office, Xi also became head of the “Office to respond to the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Crisis” when it was created in September 2012, as part of the wider effort to increase coordination and institutional oversight. According to reports there is solid evidence, including ‘from electronic intercepts’, indicating that “the movements of Chinese boats and ships were micromanaged by the new taskforce chaired by Xi.” If accurate, these reports would provide conclusive evidence that Chinese actions in disputed areas of the East and South China Seas are in fact being directed and closely managed from Beijing as part of a wider strategy.
What might be viewed as two separate programs, military and civilian, are actually designed to be complementary parts of the same effort to protect China’s claims in areas like the South China Sea, with the MLE agencies playing the lead while reinforced in the background by the presence of much more capable naval warfighting platforms. Ties between the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) and the PLAN are close and longstanding, and can be expected to strengthen in the future with the creation of the new China Coast Guard under SOA. The fact that military assets have taken a more prominent role in the disputes over the Senkakus suggests that the military and non-military means of coercion are part of a continuum of Chinese strategic options to exert leverage over other claimants to the disputes, to be used in accordance with the various operational responses of those claimant countries.
This could provide important lessons for claimants in Southeast Asia, where non-military forms of coercion are likely deemed sufficient by China to achieve its desired goals at present. Should this later prove to no longer be the case, perhaps after countries like Vietnam build up their own MLE forces (which they are in process of doing), Southeast Asia might also come to expect more militarized forms of coercion to begin stretching further south into the SCS. It is not lost on ASEAN that when declaring its ADIZ over the ECS China reserved the right to create additional ADIZ’s in the future, possibly in the South China Sea. The fact that this announcement occurred almost simultaneously with the first deployment of China’s new aircraft carrier to the SCS was viewed with concern in the Philippines, where Foreign Secretary Del Rosario stated that there was a “threat that China will control the airspace (in the South China Sea).”
While China may truly see its actions in a reactive or defensive light, others are unlikely to share this perception and may very well interpret more offensive intentions based on China’s own definition of the status quo, as well as its attempt to enforce it through coercive means. So long as China refuses to take into account the credible concerns of its neighbours and persists in carrying out its current strategy in the South China Sea, the disputes are likely to remain China’s “Achilles heel” in Southeast Asia, and could constrain its larger diplomatic initiatives in the region. Along with the disputes will also remain the danger that misperception or miscalculation could render escalation less controllable in future incidents, a distinct possibility that seems destined to become more pronounced if the various means of coercion continue to evolve in an increasingly militarized direction.
Scott Bentley is an American PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
This post appeared in its original form at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist.
The big news of the day is China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea, notably furthering the potential for conflict with Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus. Per guidelines released Saturday, the policy requires non-commercial aircraft in the space to pre-arrange flights with China’s government – effectively creating a pretense for action against Japanese military aircraft should they fail to comply with rules set for a space they likewise consider their own. Taiwan, which also maintains claims to islands it calls the Tiaoyutai, has voiced regret over the move.
Additionally, the zone may (unintentionally or intentionally) heighten tensions with South Korea as it extends close to South Korea’s Jeju island and appears to include the disputed submerged rock “Socotra Island” claimed by both South Korea as Ieodo and China as Suyan.
While the announcement by China’s Ministry of Defense was contained to the East China Sea, according to the Washington Post, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman, Yang Yujun, said that China would will create additional zones “at the right moment after necessary preparations are completed.”
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.
h/ts to @zacharykeck, @wayale, @dmhartnett, @washburnt for sources.
The conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea illustrates a number of issues in the Asia-Pacific region. The People’s Republic of China’s expansive maritime claims is the granddaddy, but there are a number of contributing elements – from the challenges of deep-sea resource exploration to the region’s political relationships. The week before Christmas the Center for National Policy hosted a discussion at their headquarters about a recent Scholars Delegation that took “next generation policy experts and decision makers” to Taipei to meet with officials from the Republic of China, known to most of us as Taiwan. The delegation met with officials who were generally aligned with the current ruling party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (or KMT). The panel discussion in Washington illuminated the fact that the political relationships in Asia aren’t a simple challenge defined by “alliances” and treaties. Instead, there are cultural and ethnic seams that cut through these relationships based in centuries of history, and encompassing domestic and international politics alike. The President of Taiwan has put forward a peace proposal for the conflict in the East China Sea, setting aside the question of sovereignty and instead focusing on how to share the economic benefits of resource exploitation in and around the islands. Many analysts have indicated that the plan is more of an effort to kick the can than anything else. CIMSEC friend Dr. James Holmes instead has written that “It amounts to hoping that rational calculations of economic self-interest will overrule equally elemental imperatives such as fear of future aggression or the thirst for honor and prestige.” The proposal raises a question: Why is the leadership of Taiwan trying to avoid the question sovereignty? The discussion at CNP helped shed some light on the answer, and it is likely because of those cultural and ethnic seams and centuries of history.
In their comments during the panel discussion, both Dr. Jacqueline Deal and Michael Breen noted that the KMT embodies a strategic paradox that is driving a confused policy for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The KMT, the party once led by Chiang Kai-shek, believes that the Republic of China (ROC) is the rightful government of all of China, both Taiwan and the mainland. According to their political platform reunification is a given once the People’s Republic of China (PRC) becomes democratic. Because the KMT sees themselves and the ROC as Chinese, not Taiwanese, the foundation of their policy toward the Senkaku/Diauyo is exactly the same as the PRC: the Diaoyu belong to “China.”
This belief creates a strategy/policy disconnect for the KMT. Strategic-level decision making becomes difficult because the party’s fundamental political belief can be at odds with the things that will help ensure the economic, political, and military security of the island of Taiwan. Japan is likely the ROC’s strongest ally in the region, yet on the Senkaku/Diauyo the ROC rhetoric makes it appear that they are siding with the PRC. Their fishing fleets have engaged in some unconventional tactics with the Japanese Coast Guard, similar to the work of the PRC’s maritime assets. This likely strengthens the fact that the PRC prefers the “anti-PRC” KMT over the “liberal” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which believes in Taiwanese independence. Is it any wonder that President Ma Ying-jeou wants to try and avoid the sovereignty issue? Japan has elected a new conservative government with military expansion on their agenda. The PRC has initiated maritime aviation patrols of the islands. Neither side appears willing to set aside the fundamental sovereignty question in the conflict.
There is a large Chinese diaspora all over the world, from the islands of Southeast Asia to the streets of Panama City to Chinatowns of most major U.S. cities. An audience member at the CNP panel reminded the gathering that there is a strong belief in all these places that the Diaoyu are “Chinese” – the political system that controls them is irrelevant. The history of the Pacific and the military and political conflicts between the Chinese, Japanese, and the states of Southeast Asia go back centuries. These cultural realities make the Pacific a complex place. If the U.S. military thinks that trading the tribal cultures of Southwest Asia for the centuries of history in East Asia will make things simpler, it needs to rethink things. Will hoping for modern ideals and economics to overwhelm centuries of culture and history work any better in Pacific waters than it did in Middle Eastern sands?
The Firm of Maynard, Cushing, & Ellis does not represent the opinions of anyone that matters. Formed by Lieutenant Robert Maynard RN, Lieutenant William Cushing USN, and Captain Pete Ellis USMC, the firm doesn’t speak for the US Government, the Department of Defense, The Foreign Office, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the Department of Silly Walks.