The maritime dimension is one of the most important elements in the making of China’s grand strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s maritime strategy has primarily three components directed towards three geographical areas:
South China Sea (SCS)
East China Sea (ECS)
Indian Ocean Region (IOR)
This commentary examines China's maritime strategy in the SCS region.
China’s maritime strategy in the SCS has two facets – militarisation and negotiation. On the one hand, China continues to militarise the SCS and on the other hand, it negotiates with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a multilateral level on the issue of framing a Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS, and bilaterally with countries directly involved in the territorial disputes in the region. China’s main objective is to dominate the SCS waters and establish its hegemony in the region.
Militarising the SCS
China does not recognise the freedom of military navigation in the SCS and at the same time continues to increase its presence in the region through its coastguard.
The Chinese coastguard is equipped with highly sophisticated equipment like the combative ship CCG3210, machine guns, light cannons and (likely) advanced hardware capable of jamming communications. They are not any different from a naval force. The headquarters of the US Department of Defense in Pentagon has reported China’s militarisation of the SCS region in its 2017 annual report
to Congress: “China’s Spratly Islands outpost expansion effort is currently focused on building out the land-based capabilities of its three largest outposts – Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs – after completion of its four smaller outposts early in 2016.”
China has responded that the defence facilities, built in their 'sovereign territory', represent China’s right to self-protection and self-defence and have nothing to do with the so-called "militarization." In future, China would aggressively use its coast guard to secure its construction activities and police the activities of littoral countries in the region. China’s asymmetric military rise in the region would make it the most powerful maritime power in the region.
Two-Track Negotiation Strategy
Currently, China is also engaged in negotiation processes at two levels. First, it has been negotiating with ASEAN for framing a COC in the SCS. To that end, both sides agreed to a framework on COC on 18 May 2017. Second, in an effort to break the deadlock at SCS, China is also negotiating separately with those countries with whom it has territorial disputes in the sea; it recently conducted a bilateral meeting with the Philippines, the first ever consultation meeting with a regional country on the SCS dispute.
China's Carrot and Stick Approach
China is luring regional countries in the SCS with its "21st Century Maritime Silk route economic belt" project, which is a part of its ‘Belt & Road Initiative’, to earn their silence at the making of COC draft. China's offer is quite tempting for the littoral countries, as they are small developing nations, witnessing a rise in the middle class and looking forward to becoming developed countries by 2020. China’s proposal to invest or grant financial loans to the countries involved in the territorial disputes is another proverbial ‘carrot’. It is offered to induce good behaviour during the negotiation process at the bilateral level that would be used at the multilateral level to pass a favourable COC’s draft. China would then use the COC as the stick to rein in its opponents and pursue its maritime aspirations in the SCS region.
Michael Vatikiotis, Asia Director, Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, explains
that the COC draft intends “to provide a ‘rules based framework containing a list of norms to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea’.” He says “the first item under the heading of ‘Principles’ states that the code is ‘not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues’.”
Favourable Regional Conditions
China is witnessing improved bilateral ties with regional countries over the past year. For example, China and the Philippines have come closer after the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte began reorienting the country’s foreign policy toward China since late 2016. Also, the China-Vietnam relationship has been improving since the General Secretary of Communist party of Vietnam (CPV) Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to Beijing in January 2017. The presidents of the Philippines and Vietnam both also attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing on 14-15 May 2017. The so-called alliance of some ASEAN countries against China’s assertiveness in the SCS region has weakened so much that there was no reference to China’s construction activity in the SCS at the ASEAN Summit in Manila on 28-29 April 2017.
The China-ASEAN decision to agree to the framework on the long mooted COC on 18 May 2017 reflects that regional claimants to the territorial disputes in the SCS region are willing to downplay the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the SCS dispute. The PCA ruling had demolished Beijing’s territorial claims in the SCS region. This shows that currently China is succeeding in both dimensions of its maritime strategy and the regional conditions are favourable for China to establish its hegemony in the SCS, potentially kick-starting its long awaited effort to dominate the Asian waters.