The Why of China’s Actions in the South China Sea

Shorter version published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China’s “moral code”’, The Hindu, 1 July 2015.

In mid-November 2006, Chinese television broadcast a documentary series titled, ‘The Rise of the Great Powers’ (Daguo jueqi) that studied the rise of nine world powers starting with Portugal and ending with the United States in the present with Spain, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia/Soviet Union in between. Produced by a group of eminent Chinese historians, the series was telecast during primetime and took the country by storm with its bold, impartial look at the reasons behind the rise and fall of powers in the modern era.

The broadcast of the series opened up the discussion of China’s rise to a wider domestic audience; in hindsight, it might have been the beginning of China’s move away from Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy, that enjoined it to “…hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” The long decades of economic reforms and opening up were beginning to show results not just at home but also abroad in terms of China’s standing and importance. Beijing’s successful hosting of the Olympic Games in 2008 added to the groundswell of pride and self-belief.

By the time the global financial crisis had wrought its damage in the West, China under the Communist Party (CPC) had well and truly abandoned much of Deng’s advice. Today, this is evident in two very different approaches in Chinese foreign and security policies.

First, China has been assertive in its territorial disputes. In the case of the maritime disputes with Japan in the East China Sea and with a host of ASEAN nations in the South China Sea, maritime incursions through fishing vessels into the exclusive economic zones and territorial waters of other countries has graduated to clashes at sea with foreign naval and coast guard vessels and to permanent occupation of and construction on disputed features. This assertion is the result of both vast economic resources available and the rapid Chinese military modernization of recent years.

Another part of this assertiveness is the deliberate challenge to commonly understood interpretations of international maritime law in practice, of course, but also in official pronouncements by China and through writings by its scholars in international publications. China has also attempted to adopt practices of other powers such as the air defence identification zone (ADIZ), for example, that it declared over the East China Sea, covering territory disputed with Japan. It is also almost certain that all the reclamation and construction activity currently underway on maritime features in China’s control within its so-called nine-dash line will lead to an ADIZ over the South China Sea in due course.

It is not important that the arguments that Chinese officials and scholars are making are riddled with holes, and are less about logic or scholarship than about parroting national propaganda. Nor is it significant that China might currently be unable to enforce its ADIZ. The point is that it has set itself up as a challenger to be taken seriously in matters of international law and created precedents which then potentially affect the future practice and evolution of international law. Meanwhile, any external challenges to China’s authority and actions only serve to justify continued nationalism at home as well as increased military spending.

Beijing’s recent announcement that some of its land reclamation work in the South China Sea would be completed soon should not lull anyone into thinking that Beijing is slowing down or backing off from further provocation. It only means that China continues to follow the opening part of Deng’s dictum – ‘[o]bserve calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly…’.

Indeed, it is illogical to expect a nation that has violated the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties with ASEAN so blatantly to change its spots. China is not going to roll back its sovereignty claims or stop construction. Military-related developments will continue given how they are seen as intrinsic to sovereignty and all activity will continue to be termed ad nauseum as ‘legitimate, justified and reasonable’ with frequent statements thrown in also of how these allow China to better perform its international responsibilities and obligations such as say, maritime search and rescue, disaster relief, maritime environmental protection and so on. China has succeeded in changing the facts on the ground and is only pacing itself so that opposition does not build up to boiling point, affecting other prongs of its foreign policy.

And yet, the telecast of Daguo jueqi also suggests that China is a power capable of self-reflection and willing to learn from others. So, are China’s actions now, the result of those lessons and does it believe it can avoid the pitfalls that led to the decline of the other major powers? These questions are complicated by the fact that the US remains in the saddle as the world’s sole superpower and China under the CPC – and the CPC, as well – remains deeply insecure on multiple fronts.

This then brings us to the second approach in China’s diplomatic activity.

China wishes to present an alternative ideology and model of development from that of the West; in other words, China has its own version of ‘the white man’s burden’ or the ‘missionary complex’. Indeed, one could argue that all rising and major powers have this sort of moral imperative – it is not enough to possess economic and military power, but also necessary to gain respect for a moral code or ethic that originates with oneself. This Chinese ‘moral code’ in simple terms is about every country having the right to choose its own political and economic system.

As with all such national moral codes, it is also founded on a sense of national exceptionalism. In the case of China, it is unable or unwilling to see how it can possibly be at fault in its territorial claims. Having shown ‘respect’ for other countries’ political regimes, China presumes they must in turn respect the CPC’s rule over China. However, since the CPC’s foundational premise today is about helping the Chinese people ‘stand up’ and overcome the ‘century of humiliation’, there cannot be respect for the CPC’s rule without also respecting whatever sovereignty claims it makes on behalf of China.

Thus, it is easy for China to justify bullying its smaller neighbours who ‘disrespect’ China by contesting its territorial claims. Part of the power play in the South China Sea and elsewhere is this assertion of the legitimacy of the CPC in the face of the American espousal of democracy as a global virtue – another great power moral code, no doubt. Indeed, this ‘anti-Americanism’ is what gives Chinese assertions of ‘Asia for Asians’ and objections to American alliances in the region an added edge.

And yet, the CPC’s China is also savvy enough to realize that its position of relative weakness vis-à-vis the US and immediate term inability to enforce its will in all cases means that it has to consider other options to break foreign opposition and distrust. It is thus that under its ‘new Silk Roads’ or ‘one belt, one road’ initiative China is offering economic largesse in the form of aid and loans to finance sorely needed infrastructure construction in Asia and elsewhere. Thus, China’s excess capital and infrastructure overcapacity are now offered as carrots that help divide ASEAN and weaken opposition within individual countries even as the stick remains visible in the South China Sea.

The ‘new Silk Roads’ initiative overlaid with China’s own interpretations of history thus justifies China’s rise with a new moral scaffolding – freedom to choose one’s own political system and opportunities for economic development as panacea for bilateral problems. It tries to suggest China will follow a path different from the war-waging ways of the West and is the closest thing to a grand strategy any major power has today.


Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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