Reading Between the Lines: China & the South China Sea

By Donald K. Emmerson

State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China addresses the Strategic Track Oceans Meeting during the 7th U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on June 24, 2015. Source: U.S. State Department's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

State Councilor Yang Jiechi of China addresses the Strategic Track Oceans Meeting during the 7th U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on June 24, 2015. Source: U.S. State Department’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

At the 7th U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue on June 24, 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry and State Councilor Yang Jiechi made closing remarks. Included in Councilor Yang’s statement were a few sentences on the South China Sea.

China’s U-shaped (nine-dash) line around most of the South China Sea has been, for Beijing, a masterpiece of useful ambiguity. Can one read useful ambiguity into Councilor Yang’s remarks as well? Could there be a difference between what he said and what he meant but chose not to say? These questions are hypothetical, but the calculated uncertainty that cloaks China’s position has made avoiding them unwise.

Councilor Yang’s comments on the South China Sea appear below in their entirety. Interrupting them are insertions that may (or may not) convey some realities behind the rhetoric—what China intends as opposed to what it says. My reading between Yang’s lines is bolded, italicized, and bracketed to ensure that my words are not mistaken for his. Unfortunately, the contents of the insertions are less easily distinguished from what China’s actual plans for the South China Sea may be.

The text below refers to the signed but never implemented and widely violated 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Although the idea of an enforceable Code of Conduct (COC) predates even the DOC, the years and meetings spent discussing it have still not yielded an agreed text.

The “edited” statement follows:

“On maritime issues, China reaffirmed its firm determination to safeguard [its own] territorial sovereignty and [its own] maritime rights and interests, as well as continued commitment to seeking peaceful [including coercive] solutions to the relevant disputes [excluding so-called “disputes” over Chinese sovereignty, which is indisputable and therefore irrelevant] through dialogue and negotiation with those directly concerned [excluding all non-claimant ASEAN states, all other non-claimant users of the South China Sea, and all international bodies including the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea].

“And on the basis of consensus [meaning a unanimity that China is free to thwart], China would work with ASEAN countries [but not with ASEAN] to advance [but not to conclude, except on Chinese terms] the consultation [meaning a conversation rather than a negotiation] on the COC [but only following the “full and effective implementation” of the DOC, or sufficient progress toward that goal, as defined by China and which China can continue to postpone].

“Navigation freedom is guaranteed [except for passages that China forbids—by the U.S. Seventh Fleet, by non-Chinese fishing boats that have failed to obtain China’s permission to fish, and by anyone else to whose maritime presence China objects]. We do believe that there will not be any issue or problem with navigation freedom in the future [because when China controls the South China Sea, the world will have to accept China’s definition of “navigation freedom,” “issue,” and “problem”].”

Three caveats are in order: First, China is not the only entity that claims land features and/or seaspace in the South China Sea. Beijing is not solely responsible for the failure to resolve disputes and reduce tensions there.

Second, an adequate defense of my insertions would require evidence on their behalf—evidence implied but not offered here. My purpose is not to say “trust me.” The above insertions could be wrong. By the same token, however, the Chinese government would do well to marshal convincing empirical evidence against these contentions. Doing so would constructively depart from the admonition simply to “trust China” that analysts have heard repeated time and again by Chinese officials at international meetings in Southeast Asia, China, and the United States.

Third, one could dismiss this reading between the lines by arguing that intentions can only be known by the intenders themselves, who may not even know what they want, and that no evidence drawn from the past and the present can reliably predict the future. But these are not reasons for countries within or beyond China’s near abroad to treat Beijing with either deference or indifference. Those options have been rendered irresponsibly naïve by Beijing’s own behavior in appropriating the heartwater of Southeast Asia.

Beyond deference and indifference lies deterrence. It is an exaggeration to say that China is engaged in self-containment. Its economic outreach through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the reimagined Silk Roads illustrates engagement not aggression. However China’s non-negotiable claims, coercive appropriations, and artificial island building in the South China Sea are zero-sum moves that contradict the “win-win” diplomacy that Beijing says it wants. The more China’s neighbors arm themselves, the more they turn to each other and to outsiders for partnerships and initiatives meant to slow Beijing’s advance, the more plausible the charge of self-containment will become.

As they look to the future, China’s leaders may be hoping for a double tipping point to arrive. The first threshold will be reached if Southeast Asians acquiesce in the triumph of economy over security—when they decide that Chinese money is worth the risk of Chinese hegemony. The second turning point will arrive if and when Southeast Asians are fully intimidated by Chinese power—when they decide to believe that Beijing can never be deterred. A calculated gamble reinforced by an existential necessity will then cement in place a Monroe Doctrine with Chinese characteristics.

Intriguing and potentially disruptive in this context is the new law on national security announced in Beijing on July 1, 2015. At least as it has been reported, this directive amounts to security on steroids. The compass of the law outdoes in vastness and vagueness even the U-shaped line, as if there were nothing under China’s sun that does not involve security. Notably relevant is the “securitization” of economic policy, including decisions on investment, and of the global commons, from the seabed to the poles to extra-planetary space.

Consider the appeal of a possibly Faustian bargain whereby Southeast Asians entrust their maritime security to Beijing in return for disbursements for economic growth. Such a deal will be far less enticing if the cost is no longer separated—analytically, morally—from the benefit. Could Chinese largesse indebt Southeast Asian borrowers beyond their ability to repay? Could this be done in the name of the same pervasive concern for security that warrants China’s appropriation of the South China Sea? If so, as the bargain morphs into a bane, Southeast Asians will suffer borrower’s remorse.

Beijing’s bullying and delaying tactics point to this conclusion: China’s leaders will not sign, or if they sign they will not abide by, an enforceable COC whose implementation would seriously constrain their freedom to do as they please in the South China Sea.

Two decades of basically fruitless meeting and talking have elapsed since China’s seizure of Mischief Reef in 1995 made obvious the need for legal restraint. Beijing continues to impede progress toward that goal. The time has come to abandon ASEAN’s entrenched mirage: the wishful belief in a meaningful COC that Beijing will endorse and observe.

Nor is my skepticism unshared. Southeast Asians have become more willing to express their impatience with China. The head of Indonesia’s armed forces has raised again the need for ASEAN to establish a “standby force” that could eventually respond to natural or man-made threats to regional security. In capitals across the region, Southeast Asians are increasingly thinking outside the box—the rhetorical prison—that faith in Beijing’s willingness to negotiate a COC has become.

Any viable long-run solution to the combustible imbroglio over the South China Sea will require China’s participation. But the longer Beijing persists in blocking efforts to prevent conflicts and resolve differences, the clearer it will be that progress depends on the willingness of Southeast Asians themselves to think creatively, on their own and with others as needed, outside the Chinese box.

Dr. Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, where he is also affiliated with the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. His latest presentations on the South China Sea were in June 2015 for the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (Jakarta) and the International Center for Journalists (Stanford). The views voiced above do not represent Stanford University or any of its units, let alone the Chinese government or any Chinese official speaking on its behalf.


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