Author: Gregory Poling, CSIS
Recent months have seen a steady progression of China’s long-term strategy in the South China Sea, which can be loosely divided into two parts. Beijing is building up its maritime surveillance forces in the area and strengthening effective control of the features it occupies. At the same time, Chinese vessels are venturing far afield with greater frequency to assert Beijing’s claims to the entire area encompassed by the ‘nine-dash line’, and to provoke missteps by fellow claimants.
Authorities in China’s Hainan Province made waves last November by issuing regulations to implement a 2004 national fisheries law. One regulation requires foreign fishing vessels to receive prior approval before entering waters administered by Hainan, which include all of China’s claims in the South China Sea. This set off alarm bells in Southeast Asia and beyond.
The regulations are a worrying attempt to enforce China’s heavy-handed control over disputed waters, but they do not signal a new strategy. The contentious article in the Hainan fishing regulations repeats almost word for word the language of the 2004 national fisheries law that it implements. The timing of the regulation’s release, in the same month that Beijing declared its Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, sparked understandable fears that China was adopting a more hardline approach to maritime disputes.
The Hainan fishing rules signal the same disregard for international law and norms that China has shown dozens of times since it submitted the nine-dash line as a note verbale to the United Nations in 2009. They do not mark a new direction in Beijing’s South China Sea policy but rather the latest step in a long-term plan to consolidate effective control over disputed areas.
China has considerably increased the size of its maritime surveillance and law enforcement fleet in the South China Sea. And thanks to the 2012 establishment of Sansha City in the Paracels and the 2013 consolidation of several agencies into the Chinese Coast Guard, those fleets are becoming increasingly more coordinated. The Communist Party secretary for Hainan indicated on 6 March that Chinese ships are now intercepting Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracels at an unprecedented rate, stating, ‘There’s something like this happening if not every day then at least once a week’.
Chinese enforcement remains focused on the Paracels, while paying only episodic attention to Scarborough Shoal, which is farther afield and receives more international attention. Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin announced that Filipino fishermen were operating alongside Chinese surveillance vessels near the shoal without interference. But barely a week later a Chinese ship used a water cannon to drive off a Philippine vessel.
The Spratlys and other areas of the South China Sea remain beyond the reach of Hainan’s fishing regulations, or any other effective Chinese administration. Since Beijing lacks the capacity to patrol and enforce its writ in such a large and highly contested area, it has resorted to symbolic expressions of sovereignty. In January, a Chinese amphibious assault ship and two destroyers patrolled James Shoal, at the southern reaches of the nine-dash line, while Chinese marines held a ceremony at the feature swearing to defend Chinese sovereignty.
James Shoal is a completely submerged feature just 80 kilometres from Malaysia, making China’s claim to it farcical, but still symbolic. In addition to sending a message to the region, Beijing seems to be taking such actions in the hopes of provoking other claimants into missteps from which Beijing can benefit. This is what happened at Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 with the Philippines–China standoff and with Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkakus in September 2012.
A lot of noise has been made in the foreign press suggesting that Chinese actions — from new fishing regulations to the ADIZ to increased maritime patrols — are meant to strengthen its legal case by showing effective administration of the disputed areas. But China’s legal experts know better. Under international law, nothing a claimant in a territorial dispute does after the ‘critical date’ at which the dispute is recognised matters. So no new Chinese legislation, occupation, or administration can have any bearing on the legality of its claims.
Instead, China is seeking to avoid international law altogether by strengthening effective control and changing the status quo little by little. Eventually Beijing expects that fellow claimants will be forced to accept the reality of Chinese control. Until then, the international community’s railing against the illegality of China’s claims will have little effect. As long as Beijing refuses arbitration, avoids international courts, and refrains from outright aggression, it assumes it will win the long game.
But the region is waking up to this danger. Malaysia in recent weeks seems to be aligning more closely with its fellow claimants. Vietnam continues to vocally oppose each new Chinese provocation. And most importantly, the Philippines has brought an arbitration case that could embolden its neighbours and pull back the curtain on Beijing’s policy of skirting the law while changing facts on the ground.
Gregory Poling is a Fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.