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Winning Without a Fight in the South China Sea

China has the largest military in Asia, and expenditures on Chinese navy, coast guard and air force are second only to that of the United States. Still, China is pressing new forces into protecting sweeping claims in the South China Sea – cruise ships and tourists. For decades Chinese maps have shown a U-shaped swathe with dotted lines suggesting maritime claims cutting into 200-mile offshore exclusive economic zones of neighboring states, as protected by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nationalistic tensions are rising over the competing claims, with reported incidents of shots exchanged by fishing vessels and patrol boats. The US official position is maintenance of international sea lanes and resolution of territorial disputes without military force, explains Marvin Ott, senior scholar on Asia with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. In a war without battles, China tries to win with tactics like splitting ASEAN members, applying economic leverage, and bolstering legal claims by deploying fishing, research, surveillance and cruise vessels. – YaleGlobal

Winning Without a Fight in the South China Sea

Who needs a navy? China launches cruise ships to mark South China Sea claims
Marvin Ott
YaleGlobal, 10 April 2013
Sovereignty games: China plans to send cruise ships full of tourists to assert control over disputed South China Sea islands (top); Vietnamese protest against Chinese patrol attack on Vietnamese fishermen in what they consider to be their waters

WASHINGTON: China’s launch of its first aircraft carrier caught the world’s attention in 2012. With the reconditioned Russian vessel, China would enforce its extensive claims on the South China Sea, observers speculated, though pressing the Liaoning into active duty was years away.

Earlier this month China introduced of a more effective weapons system to assert its territorial claims – a cruise ship with thousands of tourists. Deployment of a tourist boat along with myriad other vessels to establish its claims in the South China Sea has given new meaning to China’s claim of a “peaceful rise.”

Since the 1950s, Chinese maps have shown nine elongated lines along the coastline of China and Southeast Asia to mark its territorial control. Effort to clarify meaning of that U-shaped line tended to become lost in a miasma of contradictory, confusing statements. Even if intended as a sovereign boundary, the lines were not taken seriously. But in 2009, China submitted that map to the UN as marking its “indisputable sovereignty.” China’s actions since have left no doubt that the most senior levels of the Chinese government view the U-shaped line as a legitimate, enforceable, maritime boundary.

A series of incidents with Southeast Asian neighbors involving Chinese fishing and patrol vessels and strident public claims raised public awareness in July 2010 when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on China to resolve the dispute peacefully. China responded by stepping up enforcement capabilities and deploying a smorgasbord of government maritime agencies: the Maritime Safety Administration, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command, the State Oceanic Administration, and China Marine Surveillance, not to mention the China Coast Guard under the Ministry of Public Security and provincial-level maritime authorities, most notably those of Hainan Island – all distinct from rapid growth of the Chinese navy and air force. 

China’s first aircraft carrier received much attention; for the near future it’s not an operational military asset.

China’s first aircraft carrier received much attention, but for the near future it’s a training platform, not an operational military asset. Maritime police in their multiple manifestations are another matter. 

Growth of that force is spelled out by the Beijing correspondent for The Los Angeles Times: For example, since 2000 the Chinese military has transferred 11 former warships to the Marine Surveillance agency, which has built 13 ships of its own and plans 36 more. The Fisheries Law Enforcement Command recently took control of a former warship equipped with a helicopter landing pad. Those new vessels are kept busy. The US Pacific Command estimates that the number of long-range patrols by Chinese maritime police in the South China Sea has tripled since 2008. As one US naval officer observed in the Times article, “Chinese maritime surveillance cutters have no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China’s expansive claims.” They have cut cables towing Vietnamese sonar arrays, arrested and intimidated Southeast Asian fishermen, harassed US naval vessels and, in one case, erected a barrier to establish China’s exclusive control. These non-naval Chinese vessels are not equipped with military weapons, but demonstrate prowess with water cannons and grappling hooks – sparking frustration and a sense of helplessness among China’s neighboring countries.

China may have shot itself in the foot strategically, but not at the tactical level. Southeast Asian countries lack the capability to match the Chinese on or over the water with military or coast guard assets, a gap in capabilities growing monthly. Bluntly put, Chinese maritime enforcement agencies can muscle other Southeast Asians aside at will – with Vietnamese military outposts being the principle possible exception. Meanwhile, the US has long declared that it takes no position on territorial claims in the South China Sea, insisting on two principles: maintenance of international sea lanes in the area as a “global commons” and resolution of territorial disputes without using military force. By using unarmed coast guard forces to enforce claims, China exploits vulnerability in the US position.

By using unarmed coast guard forces to enforce claims, China exploits vulnerability in the US position.

Consider what happened at Scarborough Shoal, an atoll claimed by the Philippines and much closer to the Philippines than to China. Chinese maritime police prevented Philippine counterparts from arresting Chinese fishermen poaching protected species and then placed a cable across the lagoon that effectively excluded Philippine fishermen from their traditional waters – under the nose of the US Navy, which had no basis for intervening. Scarborough Shoal illustrates an increasingly evident Chinese tactic: Seize a vulnerable outcrop, establish permanent presence and defend it with nonmilitary assets. At this point, there’s little to suggest that Washington has developed, even conceptually, an effective counter.

China’s leverage over Southeast Asia includes a major economic component. As late as the 1990s, the US and Japan were major economic partners of Southeast Asia. No longer – China has displaced both to become the major trading partner to the region – while its investment footprint continues to grow rapidly. The linkages go beyond simply exporting goods, services and money. With the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement as a centerpiece, China has negotiated a plethora of economic agreements with the region including an array of infrastructure projects linking Southeast Asia with southern interior China. Chinese companies are building impressive rail, road and riverine networks plus power grids and ports – knitting Southeast Asia and China together in an integrated economic unit. It doesn’t take great acumen to imagine how these linkages and related dependencies can be used for strategic leverage and to disrupt other regional ties. At the 2012 ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting hosted by Cambodia, a dispute arose when the Philippines insisted that the joint communiqué concluding the gathering contain a reference to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. The Cambodian chairman refused, and the meeting dissolved in acrimony. Cambodian officials privately made it clear that they acted in response to a demand from China, backed by threat of severe economic consequences if Phnom Penh did not comply. In effect, Beijing demonstrated capability to veto any united position in ASEAN regarding the South China Sea.  

China’s neighbors don’t dare shoot at a vessel in what they consider their territory if the ship carries tourists.

China’s introduction of a tourist cruise boat in the contested waters presents the region with another challenge. No Southeast neighbors would dare to shoot at a vessel in what they consider their territory if the ship carries civilian tourists.

It can be argued that China’s decision to strip away the veil of ambiguity over its territorial intentions in the South China Sea was a strategic blunder. It’s generated alarm in Southeast Asia, particularly in governments that have their own claims in the area – Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and even Indonesia. It also produced the US “pivot” toward Asia, including statements by the Secretary of Defense that US forces would be redeployed to Asia and those redeployments would be shielded from budget cuts. Governments in Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia have moved overtly to strengthen security cooperation with the US. A region once broadly relaxed and well-disposed toward China is now very much on edge.

The strategic future of Southeast Asia and its maritime precincts is neither cut and dried nor predictable. China has staked out a dramatic, even brazen, claim, one lacking support in international law, to territory not under its historical control. However dubious the claim may be on merits, China has developed the tactics and leverage to make that claim a first-order strategic challenge to the region and the US.     


Marvin Ott is a public policy scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and adjunct professor and visiting research scholar with Johns Hopkins University.
Rights:Copyright © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

Comments on this Article

18 April 2013
I must say I am very impressed with the way you and your site effectively messages are very informative.I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates.
-kasnozl , ca
16 April 2013
Chinese and white pieces on a limited field with infinite strategic choices. Chinese government... more shades of gray than the internationally recognized 256 grey-scale from black to white on an 18th Century map with no relevance to a modern world. Reasoning...ambiguity causes war among the strong. Solution: US/China military-to-military cooperation BEFORE 70% of earth's population perish in a nuclear holocaust. Earth's survivors will wish they had died.
-Kyle Hammer , San Diego, CA
16 April 2013
Ly Son from Da Nang Vietnam.
Your analogy is confusing. Are you referring to the Communist China or Communist Vietnam? Oh wait. Nevermind. Sounds like a bitter smaller commie state is jealous of the bigger commie state.
-Michael , New Haven
16 April 2013
Does anyone like playing Chinese chess? here are pros and cons:
Pros: you will be good at tactics, strategy, lurking, harass...
Cons: Cannot think outside the chess game, Hemorrhoids, short-sighted, may be developed into psycho lurking adamant, and chronic confusing psychosis
However there are choices for us (opportunity cost)
Option 1: become an advanced Chinese chess player/ A CCP
Option 2: Obtain a Yale degree in whatever field you're good at
English for example...
In fact, I did play Chinese chess, the result is impressive
here are the skills that I've gained after playing Chinese chess game:
I've found that I am more powerful than ex-imperialists like Japan, the US, Britain, France
I can chase unarmed monks to liberate them from Buddhism; I can hunt fishermen to force them to abandon their boats.
I can also inject my fellow countrymen with rabid nationalism to stay in power so that I can afford to send my kids to Harvard...
I thought I was living in the 18th Century...
Let the Sun lightens up our brains... I prefer the Jefferson's Path
Best wishes to all
-Hai , Ly Son, Da Nang
15 April 2013
As to the Scarborough Shoal, why do the Phillippines not react forcefully? It might have a much smaller fleet than China but it should suffice to get rid of unarmed Chinese vessels acting improperly in its territorial waters. They simply seem afraid of China and not dare to enforce their rights. Which is definitely not a meaningful strategy and shows that the U.S.´s allies do not count on support even in a straightforward case of enforcing one´s proper rights.
The US attitude of demanding "peaceful solutions of conflicts on maritime rights in the region" is plain BS since it demands from the fobbed to find a peaceful solution with the (stronger) robber. That is not diplomacy but cowardice.
-wpkatz , Austria
14 April 2013
China's N. Korean proxy nuclear test highlights China's strategic military incompetence. All free nations in Asia should be concerned for their own economic independence and, ultimately, their sovereignty. Rhetoric that comes from China on their non-interference policies regarding sovereign nations is offensive when they continue to press their economic expansion in SE Asia and the Far East. It isn't merely two countries chafing from their heavy handedness. Burma provides the best evidence for my argument.
-Kyle Hammer , San Diego, CA
14 April 2013
Each claimant will expediently argue facts that support its' claim, and ignore facts that do not support
it.The 1982 UNCLOS has created a big mess. Some countries are entitled to 350mile EEZ, others
suddenlly claim what others have claimed for centuries.
If longest continuous presence is not the biggest factor in a claim, then what is?
Yet nations choose to ignore this as it is now a free-for-all islands grab with vietnam getting
the most islands.
The countries with the longest claims would be China and Vietnam,though Vietnam has weakened
hers because of estoppel.
The country with the longest presence and therefore the strongest claim would be Taiwan..
It is comical that countries with no history of presence on an island suddenly thinks
it has sovereighthy over it.The UNCLOS was not created with that in mind, it was created to
address waters off a country's continental shelf.And this needs to be sufficiently large to claim
the 200 mile EEZ.Having an island and claiming 200 miles EEZ around it is not the intent.
-jACK , US
11 April 2013
To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting - SUN TZU
Say what you want about China but one must admire the brilliance of their geopolitical jostle that is playing out in South China Sea.
ASEAN is composed of ten nations. Of the ten nations only Philippines and Vietnam have direct internationalized territorial "dispute" with China. Large majority of the members rely on China for FI and economic growth. Its actually comical for Philippines and Vietnam to try and hijack ASEAN to serve their own agenda. Logic would prevail that 2 out of 10 does not represent consensus nor majority. The mere fact that Philippines tried to host their own forum in regards to the territorial dispute in 1Q 2013 and had to cancel due to lack of ASEAN participation is prove.
Since US is not a participant of UNCLOS. China is banking on US to voice their support for PH to expose the hypocracy. Hopefully intern encourage US to become a signator and force US Navy surveillance from its EEZ. Remember the Hainan incident between China and the US.
Its interesting that Taiwan is not mentioned in this article at all. The ROC has claimed the main and largest island (Taiping) since 1947. The only island with self supply of fresh water in South China Sea. It was the first nation to set up a military and civilian garrison. Of all the nations that are jocking for position in that region. Taiwan should have rightful claim before other nations. Relationship between China and Taiwan has significantly improved under president MA's tenure. I think its matter of time before Taiwan joins HK as a Special Administrated region of China. By default China will have direct control over Taiping.
Only time will tell how things will play out in that region but China had played its hand well so far.....
-Henry , NYC
11 April 2013
Most South East Asian and in particular, the South China Sea claimants must recognize their realities and develop appropriate strategy to counter Chinese invasion in all of its facets: Western countries and the US will not politically be willing to step up / defend others interests unless and until they are forced into irreversible situations... and these situations only come when some ( not all ) Chinese neighbors accept self-sacrifices, economic disruptions and human losses to counter Chinese expansionist aggression and protect their own sovereignty. This battle will be prolonged and lopsided but when bloods are drawn and the injustice becomes nakedly clear, an alliance of civilized nations will emerge to corner China into a fairly negotiated settlement. The sad consolation is damages to Chinese future will outpace the unfortunate losses of its neighbors. So intoxicated with its current successes and past glory, China is the only nation that does not know this end-game!
-Henry Winn , usa
10 April 2013
asean counties must have a one voice to quell the bullying tactics of china by claiming ownership of almost the entire west Philippine sea disregarding its neighbors maritime rights to the 200 exclusive economic mile zone as granted by UNCLOS of 1982. Hopefully U.S. will lend us support as solid allies to contain the expansionist bully of the asean region so that china will respect our sovereign rights over our maritime zones and be responsible member of the united nation adhering to a peaceful solution over conflict among sovereign states. might is not right just to offend and oppress the weaker nations. rights is mightier as international voice speaks up. long live southeast Asians and be united.
-jan solis , philippines