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Brains Over Brawn

Since Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, observers have wondered whether China’s foreign policy would change to reflect his ascension. In the past year, events have unfolded which shed new light on this question. Specifically, recent incidents in the South China Sea reveal interesting shifts in official Chinese policy.

China’s aggressive foreign policy has always been predictably belligerent, but now a grand plan is unfolding in the South China Sea – one where the chess pieces themselves matter less than the way the playing field is to be delineated by China.

The Spratly Islands dispute

The South China Sea is home to the Spratly archipelago, a group of reefs, islands and other marine formations. The islands occupy a strategic location in the heart of some of the world’s key shipping routes; more importantly, they are potentially situated over vast oil and gas reserves – up to 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. This has made the archipelago the center of a territorial dispute between several Asian countries including China, Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Spratly islands
Map of China’s Spratly Island claims. Source:

The boldest claim to the disputed Spratly islands is China’s “nine-dotted-line”. Beijing claims an area that stretches at least 700 nautical miles away from its most southerly province. However, there are several competing claims to China’s own. Vietnamese officials hold that their history of governance over the islands since the 17th century provide a basis for its ownership of the territories. The Philippines uses its geographic proximity to the islands to stake its claim. The islands fall within the countries’ 200 nautical mile economic exclusion zones as defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Such claims leave China looking like bullies, opportunistically leveraging their privileged position to win prized resources.

However, these claims only show one dimension of the conflict. Vietnam and The Philippines are willing to actively flex their military muscles in order to assert their ownership of the islands. Despite the boldness of China’s claims, The Philippines and Vietnam are not completely devoid of responsibility for increased tensions within the region. For instance, Vietnam seized Southwest Cay from The Philippines in the 70s. Likewise, Philippine naval crafts rammed and sunk Chinese boats found in the region in the 90s – a unofficial policy that continues unabated. Furthermore, in May, The Philippines captured a Chinese fishing boat in the disputed waters. Recognizing that China is not the only country willing to establish its dominance is important in contextualizing China’s actions as a response to external provocations rather than simply a belligerent expression of power. The irony is that even now, in 2014, China is the only major claimant without an airstrip in the Spratlys.

Encroaching Chinese Presence

Over the last few years, the Chinese have been increasing their presence in the Spratly archipelago, exacerbating already tenuous relations. Through reclamation techniques, an island chain on five different reefs has been in the works since 2012, with the project only really attracting international attention this year. Lurking in the backdrop is Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, which has been conducting drills in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.  Adding to the tensions was the unofficial release of building plans detailing military bases and airfields to be built in the archipelago, which surfaced on the China State Shipbuilding Corporation’s website. Though they have since been taken down, rumors that China has a grand strategy to eventually seize the entire archipelago have not abated.

There are fears that China’s interest stems from the political-strategic value of the Spratly archipelago as a means to assert its maritime dominance. Since some of the features in the Spratly archipelago are considered legal islands, and thus under the UNCLOS, they could be the basis for claims up to 200 nautical miles around it. This would directly extend China’s maritime sphere of influence.

Spratly island2
One island owned by China in Spratly Archipelago. Source:, March, 2012

A New China

All of these fears play into the anti-Chinese rhetoric cautioning against the nation’s “aggressive” rise to power. However, it is unlikely that 21st century China is going to follow the model set by previous powers. Although China has a history of using military power to wrest control of reefs it has set its sights on, its current policies are reminiscent of the creative and clever tactics deployed in the 1990s. During this period, a group of Chinese ‘fishermen’ would put down buoys and build concrete markers. Subsequently, temporary wooden or bamboo shelters would be added. At this stage, if the structures had not been challenged or blown up by foreign military forces, the Chinese would build more permanent structures.

This past decade, China employed a wide variety of political tools to further its maritime ambitions, all of which belie a maliciously crafted plan. An example is the 2013 East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) it its Diaoyu-Senkaku dispute with Japan. Prior to that in 2012, China included the disputed South China Sea Islands on maps printed inside new Chinese passports, a move that caused Vietnam to refuse to stamp new editions of the Chinese passport. The similarity between both events is that China was symbolically reinforcing existing Chinese claims over the disputed area, without actually engaging in military confrontations, demonstrating an increasing departure from the military confrontation that has been typical of Chinese policy in the early 2000s.

Despite reports suggesting that China’s second aircraft carrier and projected increase in its defense budget are indications of a growing military prowess that we should be wary of, they ignore the fact that China’s first and only carrier is a refitting of an old Russian model In comparison, the US has 10 active aircraft carriers to date; not including some deactivated aircraft carriers it has parked onshore. China is improving its military capability but is still far from gaining enough ground to challenge America’s (global) dominance.

If it is unable to win using brute force, why not play a different game instead? That is what Beijing is trying to achieve with its plethora of creative political solutions. Aware of its military weaknesses and strategic vulnerabilities, China is moving away from the blatantly realist policies of its past and adapting a new strategy that relies less on its material capabilities. Instead of merely responding to the other claimants, China is imposing its own rules and forcing the other players to learn them along the way.

Previously in 2002, China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea at the insistence of the other claimants who were part of ASEAN. But now, by issuing new maps and delineating the ADIZ, China is redrawing the political landscape in the South China Sea. Even recently on the 23rd of June, China released a new map with a 10-dotted line instead of its 9-dash line. On the one hand, China is accused of flouting international law and ignoring international means of resolving the dispute. On the other, China is forcing the other claimants to respond to its overtures instead of allowing The Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries to dictate the proceedings.

Perhaps analysts should stop focusing on where China moves its ships next and instead seek out China’s cartographer. China’s relatively modest navy belies its dynamic political policies. Blink, and you might just miss China’s next move.

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