China’s actions in the South China Sea have become increasingly visible and forceful in the last couple of years, and appear to be marking an assertive and self-confident turn in Chinese foreign policy. Whilst seen from Beijing’s perspective as being simply an attempt to re-gain lost territory, for its regional neighbours China’s behaviour is regarded as belligerent and aggressive, and a source of ever-mounting friction. Better appreciating the nuances of China’s ‘zhoubian’ (peripheral) diplomacy – in particular from the perspective of East Asia’s largest power – has never been timelier for politicians, analysts and other actors across the world.
At the very core of China’s ‘zhoubian‘ diplomacy is the understanding that ‘preserving regional stability … aids China’s continued economic growth and modernization, as do its undergirding principles of being “amicable, tranquil, and prosperous” (mulin, anlin, fulin).’ These inter-connected principles can be further disaggregated to include:
- grounding bilateral/regional relations upon cooperation rather than conflict;
- utilising trade as the central pillar to build successful bilateral/regional relations; and
- aspiring to positively resolve all outstanding territorial disputes with its neighbours.
Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao commented that this ‘zhoubian’ diplomacy intended to show China to be ”a good neighbour and a good partner, to strengthen good neighbourly ties, to intensify regional cooperation, and to push China’s exchanges and cooperation with its neighbours to a new high.” From its inauguration in the mid-1990s, ‘zhoubian’ diplomacy also generally emphasised ‘a restrained, non-confrontational mode of competition’ as the principal modus operandi of China’s diplomacy towards its region. Significantly, a key part of such an attitude was also ‘the desire for “international status” (guoji diwei) so as to achieve power, security and respect’, which also informed Chinese foreign policy narratives.
Such aims – at least in the 1990s when China’s brisk economic ascent became vividly noticeable – were exhibited by how the dogma of ‘peaceful rise’ was abandoned in favour of ‘peaceful development’, due to concerns that the term ‘rise’ could unintentionally imply ‘violence’ or a ‘challenge’. Such anxieties also relate back to the Confucian convention of seeking ‘datong’ or harmony, which has an enduring and considerable bearing upon the nature of China’s peripheral relations policy. Such a concern also informed the notion of charm offensive (meili gongshi), ‘a term and strategy used in Chinese diplomacy to proactively project an image abroad of China as a trustworthy, benevolent, and benign partner’. Such a phrase is utilised to reassure countries worried about China’s rapid economic and military rise that China does not intend to menace their stability or that of the wider Indo-Pacific region.
These viewpoints also have the implicit goal of offering an alternate image to its neighbours that diverges with the United States (US) whose foreign policy – including in East Asia – has invariably included using military force, explicit alliances and arms racing. Much of this determination rests upon how, from the late 1970s onwards, China abandoned its prior Cold War policy under Mao Zedong of supporting revolutionary movements across South East Asia. In contrast, his heir Deng Xiaoping’s makeover of foreign and domestic policy came to rest upon economic modernisation and development, which could be appreciably amplified through maintaining a stable periphery. This strategy was also based upon a yearning to counteract Beijing’s mounting international isolation after 1989 following the suppression of protesters in Tiananmen Square, and to counterbalance efforts by the US (alongside its regional allies Japan and South Korea) to restrain China’s ambitions to become a great power.
Tensions and Trials
China’s current re-assertion of its great power status is having an influence upon Beijing’s regional policy. A central part of these dynamics is the modernisation and improvement of China’s military capabilities. Through a ‘revolution in military affairs’, Beijing is enhancing the country’s military capabilities, including the development of stealth and hypersonic technologies, as well as asymmetric capabilities such as anti-satellite weapons and anti-ship ballistic missiles. Such innovations inform a central plank of its military attitude towards the Indo-Pacific regarding the policy of ‘area denial’, which ‘seeks to fashion a protective buffer around a country’s continental and maritime periphery, so as to deter military attacks against its mainland’. They also feed into the aim of facilitating a ‘blue-water strategy’ (lanshui zhanlue) for China’s maritime capabilities, which would give Beijing the capacity to manoeuvre in all of the world’s oceans, and to safeguard the country’s vital trade and energy routes.
This transformation and incremental expansion is creating frictions and challenges within Chinese foreign policy. Importantly, military strength allows China to defend vital sea routes, so as to assist the import and export of raw commodities and manufactured goods but also to preserve the gas and oil supplies necessary for supporting the Chinese economy. China’s fear of these trade and energy routes being impeded informs the strategic calculus behind such an approach. Improved military capabilities can furthermore be used to bolster territorial claims so as to compel competitors or to vigorously dominate areas of disputed land or water.
When seen collectively – defending trade and energy routes in combination with supporting efforts to recover lost territories – China’s peripheral relations can be regarded as being much more complex than simply a benign, win-win engagement with the region. They also result in frictions between China’s rejuvenation and development goals, which other countries can profit from, and China’s territorial and status ambitions, which other countries would only lose from. Such a juxtapose results in major tensions and trials for both China and the region.
These strains have expressed themselves in several disputes across China’s periphery, which capture the numerous dimensions crucial to Beijing’s ‘zhoubian’ diplomacy in terms of – 1) trade, 2) energy, 3) territory and 4) status. These aspects are mutually inter-dependent, in that advantages made in one sphere can lead to gains in the others, which makes China’s disputes in the South China Sea of such strategic importance. Additionally, because of this interlinking the importance of winning such contestations is essentially magnified – and undoubtedly magnified again by domestic nationalism – especially regarding the issue of status and image, and China’s complete reestablishment as an internationally prominent power. In these ways, as much as energetically – and at times forcefully – chasing claims for small islands in the South China Sea goes against the central pillars of China’s ‘zhoubian’ diplomacy, they are also deeply symbolic of its wider foreign policy aims and interests.
The South China Sea Dispute
The South China Sea dispute has been an enduring concern within China’s peripheral policy. Around 3,500,000 km2 in size – including the various islands that dot the area – it is claimed by China and Vietnam, while Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have intersecting declarations to its contiguous areas and their accompanying Exclusive Economic Zones. Such claims have been included on Chinese maps for many centuries, and are placed within the ‘nine-dash line’ (jiuduan xian) professed in 1947 that distinguishes China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea (amounting to about 80 per cent of its total area), and also incorporates Taiwan (another ‘lost territory’ yet to be reclaimed after the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49). China officially asserted sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in 1951 during Allied peace treaty talks with Japan. China’s territorial claims can be seen below.
Concerning the dispute, China has signed various agreements with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), who members include all the other countries who have claims in the South China Sea. These agreements – the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea signed in 2002, and the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation signed in 2003 ‘formally commit(ted) China to enforcing the principles of non-aggression and non-interference’. Such attitudes were fundamental to the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’, which have played a central part within Chinese foreign policy since the 1950s. Notably, ASEAN and China signed another agreement in 2011 that stated China’s re-adherence to the Declaration of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which signposted to observers that this Declaration could not be expected to completely restrain Chinese behaviour vis-à-vis the dispute.
In 2016, the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China (as well as the other countries with contending claims) had no legal claim to the South China Sea. China’s claims were seen to contravene the ‘United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS)’, as they would comprise China appropriating territory that falls within the 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones of five South East Asian countries. Regardless of this decision – which Beijing declined to accept – and reflective of the trade, energy, territorial and status foundations inherent to China’s ‘zhoubian’ diplomacy, together with a more self-assured regional diplomacy, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper announced that:
‘the South China Sea islands … (are an) inalienable part of the Chinese territory. China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, … it firmly upholds freedom of navigation and overflight by all countries in accordance with international law and safeguards the security of sea lines of communication.’
In line with this opinion, China has erected infrastructure upon various islands reclaimed from the sea, includes the building of fuel storage depots, missile launch capabilities, heliports, administration and service buildings, military landing strips, naval port facilities and electronic listening arrays. From this basis, the islands now have the potential to be used as military staging areas and – seemingly supporting such an argument – also encompass defensive capabilities such as air-defence guns, satellite communication antennas, anti-submarine defences and full radar capabilities. Such expansions have been supplemented by more recurrent sea and air patrols in the region to reduce other claimants’ access to the islands.
An Enduring, and Multi-Faceted, Importance
The significance of the disputed maritime area and accompanying islands reflects the central pillars of China’s ‘zhoubian’ diplomacy and are symptomatic of its worldview concerning the Indo-Pacific concerning 1) Trade Security; 2) Energy Security and its 3) Regional/Global Status. So vital are these different factors to the success of China’s foreign policy, as it continues to ascend the ranks of international power, that they will persist for several decades to come.
The South China Sea is at the centre of the Indo-Pacific region, interlinking Asia to India, Africa, the Middle East and Europe to the east and North America to the west. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has estimated that 70 per cent of the total value of world trade, as well as 33 per cent of all world trade by volume passes through the South China Sea. This trade is valued at three trillion dollars annually. Highlighting its centrality to China’s economy, and to its modernisation and development goals to rebecome a great power, in excess of 60 per cent of all China’s trade transits the South China Sea. The South China Sea is also an essential route for China to have much-needed oil and gas supplies shipped to it from the Middle East.
The South China Sea and its myriad small islands are argued to house vast energy resources, such as the Chunxiao field, which is said to contain a possible seven trillion cubic feet of oil. While the exact amount of hydrocarbons is currently uncertain, the prospective benefits to Beijing – in terms of fulfilling its ever-expanding energy needs, as well as the lower costs that such deposits would offer in regard of both transportation and safeguarding, in addition to lessening its reliance upon unpredictable regions such as the Middle East – are clear. Acquiring such resources is seen as critical to safeguarding its continuing wealth and stability.
Regional / Global Status:
China’s actions in the South China Sea have a significant status element from the perspective of Beijing. In this way, analysts note how China uses its territorial disputes in the South China Sea as ‘diplomatic instruments to send signals to other states and to test their commitments and responses’. Motivating such an approach is the broader objective of declaring China’s dominant regional position, whilst checking the presence of the US in the Indo-Pacific. As such, the construction of critical military infrastructure also aims to discourage US naval vessels in the area. Encompassing all of these factors is the further impetus of using the dispute to display China’s growing military proficiency. Such shows of strength also play to the domestic nationalist audience as proof of China ‘standing up’ and affirming her historical civilisational rights, whereby China’s true ‘natural position lies at the epicentre of East Asia’.
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