Commentary: What one more dash in the South China Sea tells us about China’s game
China’s new map features, among some intrigues, a 10-dash line claim to the South China Sea. We should not be overly obsessed with one additional dash, says S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Collin Koh.
SINGAPORE: Recent events in Asia might seem unsettling. Beijing released a new “standard map” that featured a 10-dash line claim to the South China Sea; Chinese President Xi Jinping snubbed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta; and China and Philippines had yet another confrontation at the contested Second Thomas Shoal.
None of these would surprise a keen regional observer. Together, they weave a complex picture of China’s diplomatic playbook.
The combination of traditional diplomacy, gunboat diplomacy and public diplomacy has become routine in the region: China’s exercise of so-called “lawfare” - the use of legal systems and institutions to undermine the opponent - coupled with the use of “grey zone” tactics aimed at subverting the status quo in the South China Sea incrementally in ways short of war, against the backdrop of the annual ASEAN pageantry.
In fact, there’s a certain sense of deja vu. In 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing was especially abrasive in the South China Sea – the North Natuna Sea run-in with Indonesia, standoff over the West Capella oil drilling platform with Malaysia off Sarawak, and into early 2021, Whitsun Reef incident with the Philippines then under the helm of a relatively Beijing-friendly Duterte administration.
But we should not be overly obsessed with the new Chinese standard map. Going from nine to 10 dashes does not exactly do anything more than mere symbolism, since it does not alter the basis of Beijing’s longstanding claims in the South China Sea.
If so, what does it tell us about China’s end game here?
A DISTRACTION FROM DOMESTIC WOES
The timing of China’s new standard map isn’t a coincidence, of course, like most things in diplomacy. Analysts saw it as China flexing its muscles ahead of the ASEAN and Group of Twenty (G20) summits.
China’s assertive behaviour in the South China Sea is high on the agenda of almost every ASEAN summit. But similar to past joint statements customarily issued at the end of the event, there was no explicit mention of China this year even though the parties expressed concerns about recent flareups in the disputed waters.
The elephant in the room might have been the fact that China is undergoing one of its biggest crises under the helm of President Xi Jinping.
While lawfare and maritime coercion have been part and parcel of Beijing’s toolkit even during better times, there has been an obvious uptick that coincided with China’s domestic problems – property market woes, high youth unemployment and sluggish exports.
If history has anything to show, authoritarian regimes might tend to externalise their domestic woes, such as the case of the Argentine junta and the British-ruled Falklands (which Bueno Aires claims till this day as the Malvinas) in 1982 amid the country’s economic challenges, including skyrocketing inflation.
ARE STRENGTH AND TIME ON CHINA’S SIDE?
One reason China might feel emboldened to ratchet up tensions now is if it thinks it has attained the pinnacle of physical domination in the disputed waters.
One may argue that the leading power in the South China Sea, by dint of capabilities, is still the United States given routine deployment of military assets to the area. This alone may project presence yet pales in comparison to the actual geographical advantage Beijing possesses.
China is a resident South China Sea littoral state, not to also mention its coterie of militarised artificial island outposts that bestows an unprecedented peacetime ability for projection of constant Chinese presence in the area.
During former president Rodrigo Duterte’s time, the Philippines had already been subjected to Beijing’s “boat swarming” tactics. Mobilising and sustaining large fleets of fishing vessels (many of which believed to be maritime militia), coast guard and naval vessels across a considerable expanse, hundreds of nautical miles from the coast, can only be possible with these artificial island outposts. Manila’s recent run-ins with Chinese forces off Second Thomas Shoal aptly demonstrated this point yet again.
Whether or not Beijing intended for its interference to be an assertion of its jurisdictional claims or an expression of displeasure towards the Marcos Jr administration’s closer security ties with Washington, the “normal” ought to have become clear for all. China shows it can tap its expanding toolkit of grey zone tactics at will.
In other words, Beijing believes it can play the long game in the South China Sea.
In the Second Thomas Shoal for example, China is fully aware that the rusting hull of the beached Philippine warship Sierra Madre will not last too long before it must be discarded. There is no incentive to launch a sharp putsch to evict the Filipinos when Beijing can simply wear out Manila until it abandons its hold of the shoal.
SOUTHEAST ASIA MUST PLAY THE LONG GAME TOO
In a long game, it is insufficient to simply harp on dialogue – quintessential as it remains.
Against the new Chinese standard map, the chorus of diplomatic responses from the various Southeast Asian parties is an encouraging sign. Yet diplomacy has to be reinforced by a tangible form of presence projection.
The easiest solution is to purchase more and more powerful vessels and aircraft capable of projection into the vast South China Sea, but this runs into the brick wall of fiscal limitations so familiar to the regional countries seeking economic recovery and growth following the pandemic and the Ukraine war.
Matching China ship for ship, plane for plane is a fool’s errand. It becomes ever more essential to coordinate and maximise military and maritime law enforcement resources.
Southeast Asian countries can fight lawfare with counter-lawfare - such as tightening existing maritime legal provisions or creating new ones in line with international law to assert their interests.
There is also a need to enhance economic resilience, especially for those heavily dependent on China for exports, to diversify their markets to prevent or mitigate against economic coercion. It will take a whole-of-nation effort to ensure grey zone tactics do not sow discord and foment disunity that could paralyse national response to contingencies in the South China Sea.
Finally, while cognisant of the inherent, structural limitations of ASEAN that make it challenging to take any united position on South China Sea disputes, likeminded individual member states can work more closely together.
Those with their own South China Sea disputes should begin earnestly to address these problems, such as the case of the Indonesia-Vietnam agreement to delimit overlapping exclusive economic zones in December 2022. Concerned parties within ASEAN can strive towards converging positions, to strengthen their hand in the current negotiations with Beijing on having a Code of Conduct in the disputed waters.
The role of extra-regional powers remains more important than ever to backstop Southeast Asian efforts. Everyone must keep an eye on the long game too.
Collin Koh is a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.