What Will Xi Do Next in the South China Sea?

What Will Xi Do Next in the South China Sea?
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The South China Sea, a small part of the ocean is causing a big international dispute. The region is situated in the middle of vital shipping routs, and some estimates say that there are more oil reserves than all of Saudi Arabia, giving China the ability to fuel itself for a century. Accordingly, China has claimed it as part of their maritime border, called their nine-dash line, which also overlaps with the claims of Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. It’s become a flashpoint in the region, and the cause of military build up amongst all of these nations. The islands are also a test for the new Chinese foreign policy. How will they use their rising military and economic power?

We posed the following scenario to 7 experts: You are Xi Jinping. What is your strategy in the South China Sea? How far are you willing to go to stake your nine-dash line claim?

Patrick M. Cronin is a Senior Advisor and Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security:

If I were Xi Jinping I would seek to teach the region that we mean what we say when we declare the South China an indisputable, historic part of China.   I would use all instruments of power to make the historic nine-dashed line map a de facto reality. I would move quickly to finish reclamation projects on six reefs and rocks before an international tribunal under the UN Law of the Sea issues a judgment over the pending case advanced by the Philippines.  I would want to create artificial islands as springboards for projecting power to deny American interference in a Taiwan crisis.

If I were Xi Jinping I would keep driving wedges between and among troublesome neighbors and the United States.  I would focus on America’s short attention span, risk aversion, and lack of consensus over international security goals.  I would also concentrate on the wide seams among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – buying off those who are amenable to my goals and bullying those who are not. I would propose protracted dialogue that lets me set the tempo of events. And I would teach Southeast Asian countries that peace and prosperity can only come when they recognize that order flows from great powers, and proximate ones at that.

If I were Xi Jinping I would exploit every opportunity opened up by China’s neighbors.  My move into Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) in 2012 cleverly applied extended coercion on the ally of the Philippines. I would take great care to conceal my true intentions with respect to the South China Sea.  I would go far enough to keep the region divided and not so far as to create an anti-China coalition (avoiding casualties would be best for the latter).  I would seek to demonstrate the plausibility of the China dream by providing public goods like infrastructure investment, but not go so far as to reveal our profound vulnerabilities. I would cast Chinese dominance over these waters as inevitable, even when I feel I am playing catch-up.

Yun Sun is a Fellow with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center:

[If I were Xi Jinping] China would adopt a “dual-track” strategy in the South China Sea disputes. On the one hand, China will keep pushing for its territorial and maritime rights claims through diplomatic and military coercion, including continued land reclamation activities in the South China Sea. On the other hand, China will also pursue “charm offensives” in Southeast Asia, using economic enticements such as infrastructure projects and investments to repair ties and manage differences. This trend is evident in China’s proposal to develop the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” through Southeast Asia to South Asia and the Indian Ocean. On the issue of the Philippines’ request for arbitration at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, China will try to strengthen its legal argument at the court but is unlikely to allow the result of such an arbitration to define or affect Chinese activities in the region.


The nine-dash line remains to be a thorny issue for China’s South China Sea policy in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, China’s conscious ambiguity in its claims regarding the nine dashed line serves China better than a clear definition that would inevitably solicit discontent and criticisms from not only other claimant countries, but also the international community. Through changing the status quo on the ground through its land reclamation, paramilitary activities, law enforcement and resources explorations, China will seek to improve its de facto position in the South China Sea that will pave the ground for a more advantaged position in any future negotiations. 

Michael Lind, Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at New America:

“Beati possidentes”—Latin for “Blessed are those who possess”—is the international equivalent of the English expression:  “Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”  Proving that it understands the idea, China has taken possession of several disputed reefs in the South China Sea and is building artificial islands atop them.  This effort is widely viewed as part of a long-run Chinese strategy to claim de facto control of waters claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

Increasing Chinese assertiveness in the maritime realm must be seen in the context of a multi-pronged, long-term challenge not only to China’s neighbors but also to America’s East Asian hegemony.   China’s new assertiveness has sparked increased defense spending by many of its neighbors, along with closer ties with the U.S. on the part of Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Australia among others.  But this short-term backlash may not deter China, which has time on its side.

Unlike the U.S.-led NATO alliance in Europe, U.S. alliances in East Asia have followed a “hub-and-spoke” pattern of unilateral U.S. security guarantees to particular allies.  Through a combination of intimidation and rewards, China may pursue a divide-and-rule strategy of convincing weak neighbors to distance themselves from the U.S., one by one.  As long as China does not overplay its hand, its continuing economic and military growth augur well for its long-term goal of replacing the U.S. as the dominant military power in its own neighborhood.

Emily Meierding is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for International Environmental Studies at the Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies in Geneva

Xi’s current strategy is to reinforce China’s territorial claim by establishing facts on the ground, while publically pledging his country’s commitment to regional cooperation. Beijing’s repeated calls for joint development of the South China Sea’s oil and natural gas resources are one component of this strategy. All countries bordering the sea are interested in exploiting its potential hydrocarbon reserves. Many observers suggest that resource cooperation could moderate the territorial dispute.

However, cooperative development of the South China Sea’s oil and gas resources is unlikely. A 2005 joint seismic exploration agreement between national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam collapsed because of popular resistance in the Philippines. Since then, regional tensions have increased, making hydrocarbon cooperation less likely. Moreover, even if China could establish joint development agreements with its neighbors, they would not have significant positive effects. Other resource-related agreements between rivals, such as China and Japan’s 2008 accord on the East China Sea, have not helped resolve territorial disputes or resulted in any collaborative oil and gas production.


Xi is almost certainly aware of  these limitations, which suggests that Beijing’s joint development proposals are an attempt to burnish China’s cooperative credentials, rather than substantive peace-building proposals. Other countries will have to decide whether to take them seriously.

David Rosenberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Middlebury College in Vermont:

President Xi Jinping’s strategy in the South China Sea is to become more assertive in gaining control over the island groups within the nine-dash (now ten-dash) line, in preserving Chinese historic rights in fishing, navigation, and oil and gas development, and in providing a basis for potential maritime delimitation lines, while avoiding any adverse reaction from other coastal states or the US.

He has pursued four policies to achieve this. First, he seeks legitimacy for China’s centuries-old historical rights in the region. A 2009 UN submission states that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as the seabed and subsoil thereof.”

Second, China is establishing new administrative authorities for maritime policy in the region. Sansha was designated as a prefecture-level city with control over the South China Sea in 2012. Fishing regulations now require foreign fishing vessels to apply for permission before entering large parts of the region.

Third, Chinese naval capabilities are being upgraded by arming maritime patrol ships from the China Marine Surveillance and the Fishery Law Enforcement Command and by constructing military bases on several reefs and shoals in the Spratly Islands.

Fourth, China is playing a more active role in regional forums. A naval code of conduct “for Unplanned Encounters at Sea” was endorsed in April 2014 by naval officials from the United States, China, Japan and other states at the biennial Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao.

In sum, it is a strategy of cautious, opportunistic assertiveness.

Donald K. Emmerson is Director of the Southeast Asia Forum in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University

Xi Jinping wants, at a minimum, Chinese primacy in the South China Sea.  Maximally, he wants full-spectrum dominance—eventually, in effect, turning it into a domestically administered Chinese lake.  His strategy is to create the physical facts of Chinese superiority—faits accomplis that will be taken into account by all parties whether they like it or not.  He is trying to create a would-be “new normal” that outsiders will have to acknowledge and accept.

Reminiscent of the erection of Israeli settlements on contested land in the West Bank, China has been raising would-be battlements on the specks of land that it controls.  Underwater features are being enlarged and heightened by reclamation.  Ports and runways are in process.  Reminiscent of conditions that sustain the “new normal” created by Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the United States and China’s neighbors have no wish to risk war by intervening.

China’s leaders also want to avoid war.  By refusing to clarify the meaning of the “nine-dash line,” they have cultivated uncertainty among outsiders.  Outside analysts can believe that China wants only the land features, that it has no plan to control the sea itself.  Yet official maps portray the line as identical in shape and color to the land boundary between China and adjacent continental states.

China has already declared exclusive fishing rights over much of the South China Sea.  If and when it announces an Air Defense Identification Zone as well, we will know that on Xi’s continuum of goals from deference to dominance, the needle has been nudged farther toward the latter end.

Ali Wyne is a Global Fellow for the Project for the Study of the 21st Century

Were China to abandon the nine-dash line, it would embolden competing disputants in the South China Sea—particularly Vietnam and the Philippines—to press their claims more forcefully.  On the other hand, it would be hard-pressed to justify the legality of its self-declared maritime border, as even some Chinese scholars concede.

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told the Manila Times early this month that the boundary is not binding on any claimant: “[t]here is no way it can be accepted by any party” to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  A little over a week ago, the Philippines submitted over 3,000 pages of documentation to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in support of its argument that the Court has jurisdiction over its case against the line; that filing comes on top of some 4,000 pages it submitted to the Court last March.  On Sunday, meanwhile, Indonesian President Joko Widodo reaffirmed his country’s longstanding position on the demarcation, asserting it “has no basis in any international law” (it should be noted that Indonesia is not a party to any of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea).

China should neither give up on nor draw attention to the nine-dash line.  Instead, it should continue playing a long game, incrementally creating facts on the ground—and in the sea—and, in time, settling its disputes on its terms without having to employ military force.  That approach has registered considerable success to date: according to a letter Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bob Corker (R-TN), and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) sent to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Secretary of State John Kerry last Thursday, “Gaven Reef has 114,000 square meters of new land since March 2014.  Johnson Reef, which was previously a submerged feature, now stands as a 100,000 square meter “island.”  Construction and reclamation has increased Fiery Cross in size more than 11-fold since August of last year.”



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