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Has China’s South China Sea Policy Changed?

Aug 07 , 2020
  • Hu Bo

    Director, the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative

China’s South China Sea policy and actions have attracted considerable attention recently. China does not see any change in its own policy, and most of its actions were taken in response to infringements by claimant countries and actions by the United States.

Yet many in the international community believe that China is taking advantage of the window of opportunity created by COVID-19 to engage in a new round of maritime expansion. Some countries, led by the U.S., oppose any move by China in the South China Sea, viewing any Chinese action as evidence of imperial ambition.

What is the truth? Has China’s South China Sea policy changed or not? Why is there such a contrast?

Over the past six months or more, China has not taken many initiatives in the South China Sea. The establishment of districts in Sansha City and the announcement of the standard names of some of the South China Sea features and undersea geographic entities are about all. The timing of these actions certainly leads people to imagine a lot, but these are by no means ad hoc; they are also what other countries in the region are doing.

China opposes a proposal to delineate the outer continental shelf boundary that was submitted by Malaysia in December to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and has thus become the target of a flurry of objections by Vietnam, Indonesia and the United States.

The Haiyang Dizhi 8, a ship operated by the China Geological Survey, conducted a survey near the West Capella platform rented by Malaysia. The purpose of this was to oppose Malaysia’s action, not to make trouble.

China’s summer fishing moratoriums, the aircraft carrier Liaoning cruises and the Paracel military exercises are all routine operations conducted every year. Of course, in response to the U.S. military’s increased activities in the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army has correspondingly stepped up some of its vigilance and deterrence.

It is clear that China’s South China Sea policy has not changed significantly. The biased interpretations from the outside world are largely related to the following factors.

The first is that the United States opposes virtually every move by China. In recent years, the U.S. has increasingly tried to incorporate the South China Sea issue into the strategic framework of its great-power competition with China. As a result, no matter what China does in the South China Sea, the U.S. is opposed to it. The U.S. even believes that the consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea will increase China’s influence in the region, and is therefore suspicious of the consultations even though it originally supported them.

To manufacture disputes, the U.S. State and Defense departments have been conducting diplomatic and public opinion campaigns on the South China Sea issue, which will inevitably poison the atmosphere of peace and stability.

Second, other claimant states have significantly increased their demands. After the South China Sea arbitration award was issued on July 12, 2016, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia began to adjust their policies, essentially denying the existence of any maritime delimitation disputes with China in the central and southern South China Sea.

From China’s point of view, these disputes have a long history, and it has stuck to a “non-acceptance, non-participation and non-recognition” policy toward the arbitration case from the beginning. Most countries in the international community do not recognize the arbitration’s approach and award. If any country ignores the existence of the disputes and infringes unilaterally on territory, China will have to take action to prove the existence of the disputes.

Third, the international community is excessively focused on China. While it is understandable that China is a great power and any move it makes is big news, focusing too narrowly on China is likely to lead to an imbalance in perspectives, thus leading to a lack of comprehensive understanding of the South China Sea issue.

All along, even during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, none of the claimants in the region backed away from their efforts to strengthen their claims, but people often do not pay attention to actions taken by Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines. There are several examples of friction in the South China Sea every day, but many people focus only on those related to China and ignore other incidents.

For example, since April, Vietnamese fishing boats have been involved in several incidents of friction and conflict with China (Taiwan), Malaysia and Indonesia, but people seem to focus only on the April 2 incident with China in the Paracels, and are indifferent to more violent conflicts elsewhere.

On April 19, a Vietnamese fishing boat collided with an Indonesian law enforcement vessel in waters near the Indonesian-Malaysian border, leaving four Vietnamese fishermen missing. On June 16, a standoff between Vietnamese and Malaysian law enforcement forces in Malaysian waters resulted in warning shots being fired by the Malaysian side. These incidents were obviously much more intense than the Paracel collision, but not much attention was paid to them, probably because they did not involve China.

Fourth, China’s disclosure of information about incidents at sea is limited. Out of traditional habits or the Chinese mindset of wanting to maintain stability, China often does not attach importance to disclosing the details of maritime incidents, and most of its foreign statements are based on principled positions, laying out grand narratives but lacking micro details, which indirectly contributes to the lack of Chinese perspectives and effective information in the international community.

The collision of vessels in the Paracels on April 2 and the alleged pointing of a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship in February are typical examples. Chinese officials told me clearly that the ship collision around Woody Island was caused by Vietnamese fishing boats, and that the pointing of a radar gun in February was a complete fabrication or misunderstanding.

As a Chinese scholar, I can easily understand the logic of this, but I guess it’s hard for foreigners to understand. They ask, “If you have a point, why don’t you come out and say it, and why don’t you publish the evidence?”

Of course, there are many Chinese officials who have yet to realize the necessity and importance of disclosing details to the public, and they have been slow to react to the outside world.

On the South China Sea issue, China, as a great power, should take on greater responsibility. It does have a lot of room for criticism and improvement, but we objective facts should not be disregarded merely for the sake of opposition.

If blanket opposition and isolation of China in the South China Sea continues, it will inevitably make China think that whatever it does, it won’t help, and that relevant parties won’t be satisfied. And that, in turn, may stimulate a major adjustment in its South China Sea policy.

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