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Foreign Policy

China’s Shangri-La Challenge: Balancing Power and Norms in the China Seas

Jun 23 , 2014

This year’s Shangri-la Dialogue was characterised by criticisms of Chinese behaviour in the East and South China Seas, or China Seas. In his keynote address to the event, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe fired the opening salvos when he emphasised the importance of the security of the seas and skies for the freedom of navigation and overflight. He did not mention China directly, but it was clear that the message had Beijing’s actions at sea in mind. 

In the first plenary session, U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel further raised the tones of the discussion stating that China was undertaking ‘destabilising, unilateral actions’ in the South China Sea, reaffirming the American government opposition to the use of ‘intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force’ to assert territorial claims. Like Abe, Secretary Hagel too connected the security of the China Seas to a behaviour aimed at avoiding the use of force and coercion to drive territorial claims. 

The Chinese representatives responded in kind. Lieutenant General Guanzhong Wang, the deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general staff heading the delegation, diverted from his prepared remarks to condemn the ‘unwarranted accusations against China’. He noted that Hagel’s speech was hegemonic in character and contained ‘expressions of coercion and intimidation’. Similarly, Abe’s keynote did not try to propose constructive ideas; instead, it stirred up ‘disputes and trouble’. 

The inflamed character of the atmosphere was clearly felt by participants and international observers. Reflecting upon the events, some analysts noted that the consensus among non-Chinese delegates was that the Chinese rebuttal was unconvincing; it was ‘crude, and sounded rather childish: namely that it was not China that had been provocative, but those countries who accused it of provocation’. More worryingly, one commentator in The Economist feared that the event might very well be perceived in China ‘as part of an old world order it no longer feels bound to accept’. 

Whilst the blunt tone of the criticisms accounted for the emotional response, the events in Singapore highlighted one core issue underscoring East Asian maritime security today. Abe’s emphasise on the importance to abide to ‘the rule of law’ and the idea that ‘the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged’ captured a growing regional concern vis-à-vis Chinese behaviour. At sea, power seems to underscore Chinese military and paramilitary actions, not adherence to international norms and practices. This concern, in turn, is fuelling regional anxieties over China’s overall ability to pursue peaceful dispute resolutions. 

Where does this perception come from? What can Chinese authorities do about it? These are crucial and timely questions to address. As national authorities in Beijing strive to transform the country into a maritime power – a stated goal in Hu Jintao’s report to the 18th Party Congress – they will increasingly face the challenge of balancing the requirements of national defence with those of regional maritime security. The quest for greater power and capabilities to defend national interests will have to take into account how to accommodate the existing norms and practices of safe conduct at sea and international interaction. Above all, pursuing the former should not undermine the latter. 

Yet, at the moment, there is a case that this is exactly what is happening in the contested confines of the China Seas. Since April 2012, consistently Chinese law-enforcement vessels and naval assets deployed in disputed waters employed tactics that pushed the limits of the maritime safety envelope. They directed water cannons against communications masts, locked targeting radar on foreign vessels, and used ramming techniques. Similarly, Chinese aircraft manoeuvred at dangerously close distance of foreign surveillance aircraft. In 2001, one such close manoeuvre led to a collision between a Chinese fighter and one American EP-3 surveillance aircraft, resulting in the tragic loss of the Chinese pilot and the emergency landing of the American air asset. 

Whilst authorities in Beijing officially deny some of these actions took place, there is a growing risk that this behaviour might lead to unintended accidents – like in the case of the EP-3 – and, as a result, to further escalation. Regional maritime forces will continue to be deployed to perform maritime security missions, including the defence of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs). Yet in disputed areas, a Chinese behaviour that pushes the boundaries of safety and amounts to the threat of use of force is unlikely to be interpreted as an attempt to uphold regional maritime security. Rather, it will support views of a strategy to use maritime power and capabilities to incrementally assert claims by means of a ‘salami-slicing tactic’. 

At heart, therefore, China’s Shangri-La challenge was not about the attempt to intimidate the country and question its right to purse maritime claims and security. It was about preventing that the pursuit of maritime claims is carried out by actions that undermine international norms, especially core principles for the safety of military and paramilitary forces operating in close proximity to each other. It was about the lack of mechanisms of communication and agreed professional practices that might well reduce the risk of actions at sea to be misunderstood and become a source of political tension. China’s Shangri-La challenge was directed at the country’s affirmation as a maritime power, but at the modality in which the country pursues it in the China Seas. 

In this respect, this past April, a positive sign came from Qingdao where the Code for Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUEs) was adopted after several years of negotiation. Drawing upon international navigation norms and principles, CUEs is a tactical manoeuvring and signal manual designed to reduce uncertainties and miscommunication in regard to actions that could be otherwise interpreted as hostile during naval and air encounters. Chinese Vice Admiral Xu Hongmeng commented that ‘the agreement would have a positive impact on maritime conduct’. In addition to CUEs, robust discussions on the establishment of hot lines and maritime confidence building measures in the China Seas are starting to take place. 

These are important steps in the right direction. Nonetheless, the benefits of a normative framework like CUEs or military-to-military hotlines are still to be seen for a number of reasons. First, this code applies only to navies, leaving unaddressed the behaviour of other national organisations operating in the maritime confines of the China Seas. The events concerning the recent encounters between Chinese and Vietnamese surveillance ships in the South China Sea, and Chinese air force SU-27s fighters and Japanese maritime surveillance aircraft are evidence of the practical limits of a framework that applies only to one of the actors operating at sea. 

In the past, navies defined national power and status in the international system. They allowed countries to project military capabilities to influence events beyond national shores by means of their capabilities. This is still very true. Yet, today, coast guards, law-enforcement agencies and air forces too play important roles in aspects of security pertaining to the defence of national maritime and air spaces, and EEZs. As the uses of the China Seas expands, as highways for trade and commerce, as resources for living and non-living resources, and as platforms for the exercise of influence increase, so do the numbers of operators in it, the opportunity for close encounters, and the norms regulating them. 

Confronting differences in views on appropriate practices and standards to uphold at sea and agreeing and implementing common norms of conduct are vital aspects to address. They will not address disputes, but they will reduce the current state of tensions. More importantly, they will contribute to growing negative perceptions of Chinese actions at sea as symptomatic of a behaviour favouring the use of power to challenge the international system. By engaging in a constructive role aimed at upholding international norms on behaviour at sea, Chinese authorities will have the invaluable opportunity to contribute to shape their future evolution and secure a regional environment more conducive for peaceful dispute resolutions. 

Every journey starts with one step. For authorities in Beijing, this journey towards the country’s maritime emergence is a particularly significant one, especially as their military and law-enforcement agencies acquire enhanced capabilities and increase their activities in the China Seas. A policy of engagement to establish a common operational normative ground will not undermine China’s growing maritime power. It will channel its effectiveness towards the creation of a security environment where the country’s actions will no longer be seen as undermining the current order, and in so doing, make the confines of East Asia more stable and secure. 

Dr. Alessio Patalano is a Lecturer in War Studies in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London specializing in Japanese naval history and strategy and contemporary maritime issues in East Asia. He is the Director of the Asian Security & Warfare Research Group and Research Associate at the King’s China Institute.

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