Chinese Dilemmas in the South China Sea

Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie gestures during a courtesy visit to Philippine President Benigno Aquino (unseen) at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on May 23, 2011. Aquino said he hoped his talks with Liang would help to avoid a real conflict over the chain of islands in the South China Sea which both countries claim. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Tempers are again flaring across the South China Sea this week. Among other things, the latest row shows the real tactical challenges that China faces in defending its controversial claims. China has long declared ownership of the area around the Spratly and Paracel Islands, refusing to countenance its rivals' claims. Its map of the region includes a nine-dash line Donald Emmerson has compared to a "giant lapping tongue" thrust toward the PRC's neighbors.

In recent years, the PRC has generally tried to follow Teddy Roosevelt's advice to "speak softly and carry a big stick." During his first visit to the annual Shangri-La Strategic Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese defense minister Liang Guanglie reiterated that "China unswervingly follows the path of peaceful development” and that it will "never seek hegemony or military expansion."

Most of China's neighbors are not convinced, believing Beijing's gentle rhetoric belies more bruising behavior in the Paracels and Spratlys.

With a relatively new naval base on Hainan Island and a modernizing fleet, China has greater ability to intimidate its neighbors, and there are signs that it is increasingly willing to do so. Just days after Shangri-La, Vietnam accused China of a "premeditated and carefully calculated" attack against a ship conducting exploration in the western Spratly Islands — the second such event in the past month. This accompanied accusations from Manila that China has been "bullying" Philippine ships and fired on an unarmed fisherman in late February.

Assertions of Chinese maritime power may please some in Beijing by feeding nationalist impulses and helping justify calls for a more robust blue-water navy. However, at least in the near term, the regional backlash appears unlikely to serve Chinese interests. The Vietnamese navy promptly announced that it will hold live-ammunition naval exercises off its central coast, and the U.S. Navy has dispatched a destroyer to the area to ensure "freedom of navigation."

There lies the tactical rub. China prefers to bilateralize the complex competing claims in the Paracels and Spratlys, leaning on smaller neighbors to secure serial concessions. The other claimants prefer multilateralizing the issue so the (relative) Lilliputians can gang up on Gulliver and invoke shared norms for protection while the U.S. Seventh Fleet floats comfortingly on the horizon

For China, preventing multilateralization requires a kind of "wedge strategy" that convinces some rival claimants to abandon others and to drift away from the United States. The PRC has tried both honey and vinegar, exploring joint development options at times and resorting to shows of force at others. Neither has been very successful to date. A diplomatic approach draws other claimants to the negotiating table, but it steers toward the types of interactions in which China has a less decided advantage. Moreover, a gentle PRC does not scare rival claimants from banding together.

Taking a tougher approach also poses problems. Although China has much need for energy, it has little incentive to wage war in an area where the U.S. navy maintains a commanding lead and where protecting territory would bear heavy economic and diplomatic costs. Even threats short of conflict incline neighbors to seek outside help from America and confirm suspicions about the gap between China's words and intentions.

China’s current approach reflects an apparent effort to steer between these alternatives. The PRC is using threats to prevent others from solidifying their claims while trying to creep outward and awaiting a time when its naval might may change cost-benefit equations across the region. In the meantime, it risks undermining a reasonably successful "charm offensive" in Southeast Asia and feeding forces that raise the possibility of undesired conflict.

John D. Ciorciari is a Bernard Schwartz Associate Fellow at the Asia Society in New York.

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John D. Ciorciari is Assistant Professor at University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. He focuses on international law and politics, particularly in Asia. He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.