On President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States this week, the South China Sea might be low on his list of topics for discussion. Access for Chinese investment in the United States, coordination on monetary policies, and even climate change will likely be far higher on President Xi’s agenda.
The decades-old South China Sea disputes have risen to a boil in recent years, which from the Chinese perspective does not serve anyone’s interests. Beijing is busy fighting a slackening economy and intransigent bureaucracy at home, while also trying to sell its “One Belt, One Road” strategy in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile China sees other South China Sea claimants struggling to sustain their own economic momentum. The South China Sea disputes could hamper these efforts if it takes up too much of decision-makers’ energy.
Chinese officials announced the completion of land reclamation work in the Spratly (Nansha) Islands in June, meaning any future installations will be restricted to the seven features China currently occupies in the Spratlys. The contentious reclamation work, which started in late 2013, was mainly an outcome of China’s assessment of its own relative position in the South China Sea.
The Communist government inherited China’s claim over the South China Sea from the Nationalists in 1949. This claim encompasses all land features in the sea, as well an undefined maritime claim covering most of the South China Sea. Cross-strait competition between the mainland and Taiwan for authority and legitimacy during the Cold War left Beijing no space for compromise, leading it to stick to its inherited claim even today. From the Chinese perspective, the “nine-dash line” went largely unchallenged from 1947 – 47 years before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea entered into force – until recent years.
Since 2012, two developments occurred against the backdrop of the U.S. pivot, or rebalance, to Asia and became catalysts for China’s decision to launch its land reclamation. First was the April 2012 Scarborough Shoal skirmish between China and the Philippines, which led to the Philippine decision in 2013 to bring a case against Beijing’s South China Sea claims before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Second was Japan’s “nationalization” of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in September 2012, which resulted in anti-Japanese riots in major Chinese cities.
With tensions running high, the major reason given by proponents of the reclamation work seemed unassailable to Chinese policymakers: China gets nothing in return for exercising self-restraint when other claimants have already engaged in reclamation. China sees other claimants as consolidating their occupation of features in the Spratlys, eroding Chinese sovereignty and presenting a danger that China could forever lose its territories. Given this self-justifying rationale and the perception of a seemingly irreversible trend toward intervention by “external forces” – a substitutive term for the United States – China deems its land reclamation a countermeasure to retain sovereignty and seek a superior position to dissuade other claimants. But China is not willing to cross one line: taking land features from other claimants by force as it did in 1974 and 1988.
With the completion of reclamation, the focus has shifted to the construction of installations. The preparation of airstrips and hangars on reclaimed features has raised concern that China is preparing to declare a South China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). The prospect of China threatening freedom of navigation via an ADIZ weighs on the minds of major South China Sea users’ minds, including those of Australia, Japan, the United States, and some ASEAN countries. This perception indicates the fundamental dilemma that in a contested maritime domain, international law is not sufficient to both set the rules of the road and manage competition for prestige.
Given its perceived status as a rising power, and having studied the history of major powers’ rises, China has decided not to take part in the arbitration case brought by the Philippines, but is willing to open its reclaimed features to use by others for the “international public good.” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said on several occasions that the reclaimed features will be opened to international cooperation on “search and rescue, meteorological observation, and safety of navigation, and so on” if and when “the time is ripe.” One can therefore assume that during discussion of the South China Sea in Washington, President Xi will seek to emphasize China’s respect for and potential provision of public goods, and U.S.-China coordination on limiting differences. In short, Xi will seek to lower the temperature, but whether he will be successful and what will happen afterward remain question marks.
The “Great Wall of Sand,” as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris called China’s reclaimed features, has already been established and it is hard to imagine any change of control without conflict. No matter what cost China pays for its reclamation, or how much other claimants build up their holdings, the United States provides assistance to boost coastal states’ maritime capacity, or U.S. military forces are redeployed, one cannot turn back the clock. China deems its actions “lawful,” or at least commensurate with what others have been doing. The key to resolution lies in strategic thinking on the issue.
Opening facilities on its reclaimed features to civilian use as a “public good” would signal that China is fully aware of the significance of freedom of navigation as the largest user of the South China Sea, and that it is committed to avoiding the “tragedy of great power politics” that has greeted a rising power throughout history. The South China Sea is a real test for the trajectory of China’s rise and relations with the United States, and President Xi’s first state visit could be the beginning of an exchange of strategic thinking toward ensuring a rules-based coevolution.