The Recent South China Sea Spat in Wider Context















Beijing’s elevation of the hotly-disputed South China Sea (SCS) to that of a ‘core interest’ earlier this year, bringing it alongside issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, signals a dramatic expansion of its diplomatic untouchables. When coupled with a recent ratcheting up of regional tensions – from the harassment of the USNS Impeccable to fracas surrounding the captured Chinese trawler captain – it appears to mark a growing assertiveness on the part of Beijing. These developments risk being perceived as a nascent shift in China’s foreign policy position from status quo power to revisionist power. That said, China’s history of successfully settling territorial disputes, in conjunction with the sizable economic and military disincentives involved in escalating the row, indicates a likelihood that claims will be settled by compromise rather than combat.

Tensions in the SCS have been bubbling away for quite some time. Three regional actors (China, Taiwan and Vietnam) have long claimed sovereignty over all the islands and reefs within the sea, whilst another three (Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines) claim just the Spratly Islands (Nansha).[1] The US, as regional security underwriter and global superpower, also has an active stake, something that was reinforced recently by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she proclaimed peace and stability in the SCS a US ‘national interest’. These long-standing tensions took a new turn in March, when Cui Tiankai, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, informed his US counterparts that China views the SCS as a national ‘core interest’, the first such declaration. As one Chinese professor puts it, this new stance is a ‘proclamation that China will no longer tolerate activity deemed unfriendly or hostile’ in the SCS.[2] In terms of Chinese foreign relations, it is now a diplomatic no-go zone.

Recent developments have heightened these background tensions. In March 2009, the USNS Impeccable, an American surveillance ship, was confronted by five Chinese vessels just off China’s Hainan Island, which ‘aggressively manoeuvred in dangerously close proximity’ to the ship. Two months later, Malaysia and Vietnam made a submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), aiming to bolster their claims to the SCS, and drawing a vitriolic counter-claim from Beijing. A year on, in March 2010, a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean corvette, killing forty-six sailors and sparking joint naval exercises between the US and South Korea – first, a four-day drill east of the Korean peninsula, and now a set planned in the Yellow Sea. These were denounced angrily by Beijing, which subsequently launched a series of live-fire defence exercises in the SCS and an air exercise in the Yellow Sea. In September, a Chinese trawler collided with Japanese patrol vessels near the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the SCS, leading to the Japanese seizing the captain and fourteen crew members. China retorted that ‘the Japanese side applying domestic law to the Chinese fishing boat operating in this area is absurd, illegal and invalid’,[3] and that the matter has ‘seriously damaged China-Japan relations.'[4] Tensions are running high in the region, with Beijing’s attitude to the SCS increasingly assertive, and its approach towards territorial disputes increasingly forceful.

Historically, however, Beijing has a fairly good record of solving territorial disputes. According to scholarship by M Taylor Fravel, since 1949 China has ‘participated in twenty-three unique territorial disputes with its neighbours on land and at sea. Yet it has pursued compromise and offered concessions in seventeen of these conflicts.'[5] Moreover, compromises have been ‘substantial, as it has usually offered to accept less than half of the contested territory in any final settlement.’ The six instances in which China has used force were concentrated in the first twenty years of the People’s Republic, and have resulted in little extra land accumulation. Indeed, Fravel noted in 2008 that ‘China has … not become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes as its relative power has grown in the past two decades.’

The SCS dispute still lingers and has been the source of violent confrontation in the past. In the early 1970s, late 1980s and again in the mid-1990s, China used force to occupy parts of the Spratlys and Paracels, although largely in reaction to similar moves by other claimant states, notably Vietnam and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Beijing’s approach to the SCS has been evolving. It has shifted from adopting a low profile in the 1950s and 1960s, increasing its regional presence through to the mid-1990s, and then showing considerable restraint up to the present, ‘trying to strike a balance between sovereignty, development, and security interests.'[6] Much of this is underwritten by Deng Xiaoping’s famous ‘shelving disputes for joint development’ rhetoric, whereby all parties were to put aside final sovereignty claims in order to co-operate in resource extraction from the oil- and gas-rich seabed. Moreover, China has been more welcoming of a multilateral approach, as evidenced by its signing of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (which reaffirmed mutual trust and the need to resolve the dispute peacefully) and its accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (which commits it not to use force against ASEAN member states).

These softer overtones are, therefore, called into question when the term ‘core interest’ (hexin liyi) is deployed. Indeed, ‘core interests’ occupy a rather special place in China’s foreign policy. They are used as justification for refusing to compromise on territorial sovereignty issues, whilst the right is reserved to protect them militarily as a last resort. As demonstrated with Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, when it comes to issues central to national sovereignty and territorial integrity, there is no room for compromise. When these interests are challenged – or perceived to be challenged – diplomatic ties, at the very least, are strained. US arms sales to Taiwan in early 2009 resulted in the severing of military-to-military relations, which have yet to be restored. Note also the muted reaction amongst Western governments to the March 2008 Tibet riots and July 2009 Xinjiang riots.

There is some disagreement, though, over whether China has actually claimed the whole SCS, as pictured in the infamous 1947 ‘nine-dotted line’ that stretches in a ‘U’ shape along the coasts of Southeast Asia’s littoral states.[7] In its objection to the UNCLCS submission from Vietman and Malaysia, Beijing asserted sovereignty ‘over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters.’ Robert Beckman, Director of the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore, interprets this as a claim to the islands and surrounding waters to the distance of only twelve nautical miles.[8] Despite the attachment of the original ‘nine-dotted line’ map to Beijing’s CLCS objection note, the only mention of claimed waters is that of ‘adjacent’ waters.

This ambiguity of China’s true claim is reflected in the scope of the domestic debate.[9] Han Xudong of the National Defense University argues for a cautiously hawkish attitude towards ‘core interests’, as China’s national power is not yet sufficient to safeguard an expanded list. As power grows, it seems, so will the list of core interests. On the other hand, Da Wei of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations has argued for preventing the ‘arbitrary extension of the parameters of hexin liyi in the wake of the rise of national power.’ Furthermore, he notes that ‘often, big powers may "let go of" some disputed areas. This doesn’t mean such countries have forsaken their core interests.’ Similarly dovish, Pang Zhongying of Renmin University is pushing for a multilateral approach to resolving the SCS issue, stressing that ‘there will be considerable difficulty in maintaining [a] "bilateral" approach’, a view in opposition to much of the recent rhetoric.

Should China take action, the repercussions are fairly severe, which serve as a hefty constraint on escalation. Violence between China and a US ‘hub and spokes’ alliance partner, such as Japan, would be likely to involve the US militarily. Heightened tensions alone would invite a greater US presence into China’s desired sphere of influence. Trade would also suffer. Given a boost from the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement earlier this year, Southeast Asia’s trade with China is growing strongly. This is something that China does not want to jeopardise, particularly given the rather limp growth prospects in the West. Overwhelmingly, China desires the stability to allow it to concentrate on its internal development goals, not least because the Communist Party’s legitimacy largely rests on its ability to provide an improving quality of life for its citizens. Conflict threatens all of this. Moreover, a genuine and lasting tilt towards aggression in the resolution of territorial disputes risks giving the impression that a rising China has the same expansionary tendencies as previous global risers, bringing with it the potential for a co-ordinated effort at containment between the US and regional powers.

Whilst the simultaneous use of ‘shelving disputes’ rhetoric and ‘core interests’ language is incongruous (to say the least), it is unlikely that tensions will escalate much past chest-beating. The active debate within China as to whether ‘core interests’ are to be expanded and dogmatically pursued demonstrates that the foreign policy community’s mind is not monolithic and immovable. Additionally, given the strong historical record of seeking compromise in territorial disputes and the painful disincentives involved in escalating the row, significant constraints on action exist. Although tensions may run high, the risk of conflict does not.

Alistair Thornton



[2] Junbo Jian, ‘China Takes New Tack in Maritime Diplomacy’, Asia Times, 14 July 2010.

[3] Glionna and Nagano, ‘Arrest of Boat Captain Escalates Japan-China Rivalry’, LA Times, 11 September 2010.

[4] Chris Buckley, ‘China Says Inappropriate for Wen to Meet Japan Leader’, Reuters, 21 September 2010.

[5] M Taylor Fravel, Strong Borders, Secure Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[6] Li Mingjiang, ‘Security in the South China Sea: China’s Balancing Act and New Regional Dynamics’, 11 February 2008.

[7] From Hainan down the coast of Vietnam, closing in on Singapore, then up along the coast of Malaysian Borneo, past the Philippines and, as expected, around the far side of Taiwan.

[8] Robert Beckman, ‘South China Sea: Worsening Dispute of Growing Clarity in Claims’, RSIS Commentaries, 16 August 2010.

[9] Willy Lam, ‘Hawks vs Doves: Beijing Debates "Core Interests" and Sino-US Relations’, China Brief (Vol. 10, No. 17), 19 August 2010.

China Analyst, IHS Global InsightSam Bateman, ‘The South China Sea: When the Elephants Dance’, RSIS Commentaries, 16 August 2010.

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