The South China Sea: Decadal Dynamics that Impact on its Geopolitik

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal and available in the authors column The Strategist at http://www.ipcs.org/comm_select.php?articleNo=5757

Geopolitical trends are not “pop-up” events, what they represent is an evolved aggregation of implemented policies that manifests themselves as direction in a nation’s world view. And therefore as we set out to identify the critical trends that had an impact on the politico military dynamics of the South China Sea over the last decade, we would do well to note that trends evolve. The impact of Climate Change is a fact that is there for the world to perceive; it has not only set into motion migratory impulses but has compelled world governments to see the elite and the not-so-elite as a part of a shared destiny. While the pandemic, a one-of human event, has exposed the fragility of structures that we have erected that separate nations and societies. The social media on the other hand has democratised access without attaching accountability for actions; to an extent where the role of government is placed on a shaky footing. The events at Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 are a unique point in social media and international relations history.  

These three are no doubt seminal events of the last decade, but they are more in the nature of fractious and uncontrollable developments.

In this frame of reference one may identify three abiding trends that have ripened across decades to set in motion disruptive forces world over and in particular in the South China Sea:

  • The disintegration of Cold War alliances leaving in its wake absence of leadership and a breakdown of the balance of power that provided both context and substance to international relations.
  • Condition of sovereignty of states in the face of globalization of capital, labour and technology. While a surge of migrations has turned existing socio-economic conditions on its head.   All of which exposed the fragility of democracies.
  • The diminishing prospects of order as nations adopt aggressive military postures and doctrines with a view to change geography and existent political norms.

Disintegration of Cold War Alliances Leaving in its Wake a Breakdown of the Balance of Power

Elements that “Balance of Power” stoked were those devices that strengthened mutual forces such that no one State should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this condition, it was held to be the common interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed by any other member of the community. The concept grew in Europe as an instrument of survival of State which demanded that military strategy not be freed from political control. It was premised on two realities of the existent international system. First, the system was anarchic with no hegemon to dominate. Second, that nations are principle actors in the international system, as they “set the terms of collaboration” and devise balancing alliances. This theory with all its abstractions and many flaws lay at the heart of the system up to and beyond the Cold War.

Crumbling of the Soviet Union and the attendant power melt-down in Russia left the world in a unipolar condition. The US donned the mantle of the unchallenged global hegemon. It dominated international systems through time-established networks and indeed dispensed order over and including the South China Sea (SCS). The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty that dominated the last three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts (Shankar, 2019) where lack of definition masks the nature of engagement which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination and the ability to tweak the ‘rule book’.

China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence to further its aspirations are financial inveiglement, military coercion and leveraging instabilities. Since the first decade of the millennium, the international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days, gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.”

Xi Jinping in his words has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” has, in imperial fashion, been added to the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership.  

But the problem is far more complex; existent international systems have evolved through an acceptance of economic laissez faire, Adam Smith’s views on state control is revealing and should put a dampener on China’s aspirations as he suggested “It is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense.” In such circumstances an extant milieu is most unlikely to adopt a prejudiced revision coming from a society that neither promotes liberal values nor respects an unautocratic approach.

Sovereignty of States

Globalization of capital, labour and technology is redefining the very concept of a sovereign state; while a surge of migrations have turned existing socio-economic conditions topsy-turvy. The economic benefits of this ‘new world’ are there for those willing to embrace the change. Nations that have retreated within are left in a world of denial that fails to recognise what has structurally redefined the modern successor to the overwhelmingly antiquated Westphalian Order. But what of nations such as China that have selectively endorsed and embraced attributes of the globalised world without the ‘messiness’ of socio-economic changes?

The principal motive force underlying globalisation is the progressive integration of economies and societies. Driven by new technologies, new economic and financial relationships, international policies and the urge for wealth creation; globalisation provides the ultimate amalgamation that can potentially free societies from the constraints of autocratic control. These exchanges have led to interdependencies at all levels. It has also precipitated a conflict between markets and governments that tends to weaken and tear the very fabric that binds nations together.

But is this a condition that China’s authoritarian system can tolerate? And if it cannot, will it not result in unendurable stresses within society that may eventually bring about the dissolution of the regime?

Diminishing Prospects of Order

One of the awkward ironies of recent history is the ephemeral nature of American domination over global affairs. Uni-polarity was not only short-lived, but the US was actually instrumental in encouraging the rise of competing powers. China was catapulted to the forefront of world economic development to a great extent as a consequence of American actions to integrate the PRC into the larger global capitalist system. The result was the creation of a competitor and a threat to existing order.

It is not simply the rise of China’s comprehensive power that has given notice to the status-quoists, but also its determination to re-write the ‘rule book’ on its terms as apparent from its claims in the SCS and its flouting of international norms. The loss of confidence that the US has been confronted with by the stalemate in Iraq, the Levant, Afghanistan and the past inability to come to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 can hardly have helped to steel its geopolitical poise.

Even if China’s efforts to gain strategic  dominance in the region does not achieve the desired results, clearly, their efforts are symptomatic of defiance of existing international order. China’s vision of domination leans heavily on its grandiose ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the financial clout of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) created in 2016 as a counter to the US dominated World Bank and the IMF. The growing apprehension is that in the absence of a set of conditionality and a consensus that underwrites fiscal discipline, tax reform, deregulation of market dynamics and secure property rights; loans transforms to territorial lease or trade concessions as the Chinese have done in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Pakistan or in Kenya where the port of Mombasa serves as collateral for the loss making  Nairobi-to-Mombasa rail corridor; in another ‘debt-for-equity’ swap.   

                  On the security front the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aims to balance the revisionist ambitions of China. While it has neither announced itself as a military alliance, it would need to define purpose and should take the next step of enhancing military cooperation to signal intent to deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

In the South China Sea, in the meantime, claims defined by China’s 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016. The Quad has the opening to institute measures that serve to contain China’s revisionist policies and aggressive territorial grab. The opportunity must be seized lest globalism be held to ransom by Chinese nationalism.  

An Improbable Prognosis

The three trends have seemingly opened the SCS to the arrival of a new hegemon. The apparent imbalance caused by the receding influence of the US and the absence of an alternative would appear to throw an invitation to China to fill the vacuum; and yet there remains a body of distrust. If domination of the region remains the aim then what becomes of the slackening terms of sovereignty one wonders? There is a discernable movement against an autocratic regimen, its imperial methods and its territorial ambitions whether in Taiwan, Ladakh, the South China Sea or elsewhere.

We have noted the Indo-Pacific presents an awkward anomaly to strategic thinkers. The question is, are there any basis for China’s quest for a reset to the status-quo other than a quest for power and glory in the colonial mode?

Xi’s Disquieting Dream of National Rejuvenation

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

In the run up to the First World War, Germany pursued a combination of overbearing diplomacy and brinkmanship to achieve policy goals, despite the risk of war. Demanding a review of international order that would confer on it a dominant political position in keeping with its self-perceived economic and military prevalence, Germany saw little issue in war being a natural corollary to its creating crises and then manoeuvring through them. In the event security tolerance of rival powers was persistently stretched. And, when war did break out, it was fought with colossal military ineptitude and a bizarre inability to match military design with political purpose (sadly, a recurring malaise to this day). An observer of contemporary geopolitics cannot fail to notice the remarkable similarities in the circumstances of China’s dazzling economic growth, military build-up and its twenty first century realpolitik instincts.

The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty, that dominated the three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts that lack definition the nature of which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination. China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence are financial inveiglement, military coercion, and exploiting instabilities.

Mearsheimer’s “offensive realism,” the realist international-relations theory, holds that in “an anarchic world with no sovereign to provide law and order, states will tend to amass as much relative power as they can and will never find security other than in accretion of power at the expense of competitors…the best defence (in this milieu) is good offense.” Revisionist China is today an avowed devotee of just such strategic logic. And therefore, to China a global economic order governed, largely, by a single set of rules not of its bidding, is repugnant.

China has announced sweeping claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea and sought to ratify them by creating and fortifying artificial islands in flagrant defiance of existing international laws and conventions. A network of Chinese naval bases, port infrastructural developments and atypical shipping control centres has been secured from the South China Sea to the East African Coast. This includes ports of Sittwe in Myanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the port of Gwadar in Pakistan, Port Sudan, port Lamu in Kenya and port Bagamoyo in Tanzania. Historically and in terms of contemporary significance to the existing maritime flow of trade, these harbours are of no weighty consequence; however from a geo-strategic standpoint they suggest springboards for sea control and envelopment of India rather than mercantile ascendancy or commercial profitability.

Chinese Military outposts in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar have mushroomed to challenge unwelcome maritime control presence and safeguard their extensive investments in Africa. These investments have thus far resulted in either generating equities or enmeshing the victim states in a debt trap that force them to surrender sovereignty over assets being created. Learning from “colonial experience” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, China has put in place a strategy that emphasizes relatively superior organization, technological interventions, and unscrupulous financial mobilization to exploit and divide the weaknesses of the political and military systems in the host state. And if China’s growth seeks new markets and primary resources in Africa, then exclusive control of these is at its core, regardless of friction that may erupt.

Both India and China in their quest for growth with security must find ways and means to avoid threatening each other’s interests (as is happening) and advance the nous for security even if that implies establishing a ‘restraining balance.’ In the past, leadership coped with the coming challenge more by knee jerk rather than policy responses. In changed circumstances of India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ policies, the impact that the military will have on the developing correlation is the moot question. A scrutiny of the problem from these two distinct levels of strategic policy and military force will also precipitate several questions, answers to which hold the key to the future. First, from the strategic viewpoint, is India focussing on what comprises the strategic centre of gravity of China’s power and mercantile ‘putsch’?  Second, from the military perspective, would our forces, either singularly or in alliance, be able to balance Chinese military activities prejudicial to our interests? Clearly the answer to the first is: China’s compulsion for unremitting growth while to the second the answer lies in developing a ‘China restraining strategy’ best tempered by an appropriate alliance.

Given the slowdown of China’s hitherto stunning economic growth (a recent BBC estimate puts China’s annual growth rate as low as 5.6%), the trade and tariff war with the USA which has begun to bite, and the countries of the ASEAN eyeing markets and resources elsewhere as demand in China falters, would suggest an adverse impact on China’s current military modernization and strategic infrastructural plans (such as the Belt and Road Initiative). The other problem which may hobble China’s ambitions is the amount of debt in the economy – by some estimates close to 300% of GDP.

Two options present themselves to China’s planners as they attempt to manage these predicaments: retard pace of projects, cut back on military modernization, strategic infrastructure building and accept moderation of Xi’s “Dream of national rejuvenation, securing expanding interests overseas and developing capabilities to degrade core operational and technological advantage that influence the region ” (China defence White Paper 2015 , recalling that leadership have for long characterized the initial two decades of the 21st century as a period of strategic opportunity). Or, perceiving the window of “strategic opportunity” rapidly closing, continue to run down their strategic objectives with far greater vigour even at cost of international friction and disruption of their internal circumstances.

In either of the two options the development of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad); a security organisation which includes the USA, Japan, India and Australia must be viewed as a timely ‘China restraining alliance’ to counter China’s unrelenting power surge for an exceptionable proprietary mercantile empire stretching across the Indo-Pacific. The Charter of the Quad is yet to be fleshed out; but conceivably, it will have three objectives. The first, to reinforce a rule-based regional order that rejects nationalistic militarism. Second, to promote a liberal trading regime and freedom of navigation essential to secure passage of close to 60% of global trade through the Indo-Pacific. Third, to provide security assurances.

However, just as behind the scenes machinations from Beijing splintered the Quad at inception, the entente faces similar fragmenting stresses that threaten the whole. India is locked in a long standing border dispute with China. Similarly, Japan has maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas while China’s new Air Defence Identification Zone provides the recipe for mutual interference in the air. In the meantime the US is engaged in a self-destructive move to renege on its larger strategic responsibilities; Australia on the other hand depends on China for approximately 22 % of trade. And there are China’s assignees, the maverick nuclear armed states of North Korea and Pakistan whose disruptive influence cannot be set aside. And yet the opportunity that the current state of China’s economy presents must be grasped if the Quad is to have ready impact.

The question is, does leadership recognize that Chinese realpolitik is at play and that only a determined system based on pragmatic rather than ideological considerations can confront it? The current moves by Japan, USA and India to develop Trincomalee in Sri Lanka to stave off China’s aggressive push in Hambantota will suggest that the entente has not been altogether unsighted to events in the region.

South China Sea: China’s Double Speak and Verdict at The Hague

By

Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

When Premier Xi rubbished the 12 July 2016 verdict of the International Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on China’s claims over most of the South China Sea, what exactly was meant? For no international justice system had thus far ever called China to order for its expansionist strategy.

What the Hague had in fact done was not only to uphold the case filed by the Philippines in 2013, after China seized a reef in the Scarborough Shoal; but also condemned China’s conduct in the South China Sea over construction of artificial islands and setting up military infrastructure. In an unequivocal rebuke, it found China’s expansive claim to sovereignty over the waters had no legal basis, historical or otherwise. The verdict gives motivation to the governments of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan to pursue their maritime disputes with Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). Small wonder then is Premier Xi’s fulmination.

The central issue before the PCA was the legality of China’s claim to waters within a, so called, “nine-dash line” that appears on official Chinese charts. It encircles 90 per cent of the South China Sea, an area of 1.9 million square kilometres approximately equal to the combined areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar put together. Philippines contention was that China’s claims were in violation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both China and the Philippines have ratified. In its decision, the tribunal said any historic rights to the sea that China claimed “were extinguished” by the treaty. And its failure to be a party to the deliberations in no way bars the proceedings. The UNCLOS lays out rules for drawing zones of control over the world’s oceans and seas based on coastal orientation. While the concept of Historic Waters means waters which are treated as internal waters where there is no right of innocent passage.

As far as the “nine-dash line” (originally eleven-dash) is concerned; following the surrender of Japan in 1945, China produced a proprietorship chart titled “Position of the South China Sea Islands” that showed an eleven-dash line around the islands. This map was published by the Republic of China government in February 1948. It did not hold onto this position after it fled to Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party, however persisted with this cartographic notion, modifying the 11 to 9 dashes when in 1957, China ceded Bailongwei Island in the Gulf of Tonkin to North Vietnam.

Map: The Nine-Dash Line  Slide1

Source: BBC.CO.UK

The PCA concluded that China had never exercised exclusive authority over the waters and that several disputed rocks and reefs in the South China Sea were too small for China to claim control of economic activities in the waters around them. As a result, it found, China outside the law in as much as activities in Philippine waters are concerned. The tribunal cited China’s construction of artificial islands on the Mischief Reef and the Spratly archipelago as illegal in addition to the military facilities thereon which were all in Philippine waters.

The episode has besmirched the image of Xi Jinping, his politburo and indeed the credibility of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Tolose their legal case for sovereignty over waters that they have heavily invested in must come as a rude shock to their global aspirations. A complaisant response may set into motion the unravelling of the CPC’s internal hold on the state as defence of maritime claims is central to the Communist Party’s narrative. Any challenge to this account is seen in Beijing as a challenge to the Party’s rule. But the die has been cast; it remains to be seen how more regions and neighbours respond to China’s unlawful claims wherever it is perceived to exist. An indication of the regional response was Vietnam’s immediate endorsement of the tribunal’s decision.

Thus far China has responded sardonically with a typical Cold War propagandist style avowal “We do not claim an inch of land that does not belong to us, but we won’t give up any patch that is ours. The activities of the Chinese people in the South China Sea date back to over 2,000 years ago.” said the front-page in The People’s Daily, which ridiculed the tribunal as a “lackey of some outside forces” that would be remembered as a “laughingstock in human history.” Such dippy doublespeak has no place in contemporary geopolitics. For China to do nothing about the matter will be difficult in the extreme. It does not take a political pundit to note that some form of immediate coercive military manoeuvre in the South China Sea is in the offing. Also, it would hardly be realistic to expect China to scurry away to dismantle the military infrastructure it has so far set up; more likely it is their revisionist policies that would be reviewed.

Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, in 1976, China brought out a movie titled “Great Wall in the South China Sea,” it was not about the inward looking narrative of Chinese civilization but of “expansive conquests that would knit together all of South East Asia.” The Hague’s verdict has grievously injured the latter strategy. And if the free world is to rein in China’s bid to rewrite the rule books including the right to unimpeded passage in the South China Sea then, it would do well to convince her of the illegitimacy of her position. In the meantime Indian diplomacy should promote the littorals of the South China Sea to seek arbitration for their maritime disputes with China at The Hague.