Andrew Chubb: Engaging with ASEAN to Address China’s Maritime Strategy

The Following is an edited transcript of an interview which took place with Andrew Chubb.

What is China’s stated maritime policy under Xi Jinping?

The state of maritime policy under Xi Jinping bears a lot of continuity with the policies of his predecessors. It is a common trope that Xi Jinping has presided over a more assertive China. That is broadly true in many areas of policy—look at the radicalization of policy in ethnic minority regions such as Xinjiang. In relations with the United States, and at times with Japan, China has become more abrasive, confrontational, and bold. The Belt and Road initiative, taking a leadership role on the international stage, and China’s rhetoric about offering the world a new model—all of this can quite easily be attributed to Xi Jinping. However, when it comes to the specific area of maritime policy, Xi Jinping has not changed much. China has a very holistic maritime policy, which includes economic, diplomatic, and technological dimensions. hǎiyáng qiángguó—building China into a great maritime power. This initiative has become more widely discussed under Xi Jinping, but Jiang Zemin, General Secretary of the CCP from 1989 – 2002 was the first to put this idea forward back in 2000. 

The vision of developing China into an all-encompassing maritime power—economic offshore exploitation, active participation in international maritime governance bodies, etc.—was pushed even further by Zemin’s successor, Hu Jintao. The state had been implementing these aspirations well before Xi Jinping came into power, has just continued the existing trajectory. He has also continued asserting China’s claims to disputed maritime territories, notably the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Dating back to 1970, this was the first time the PRC put forward an official claim to those islands. Depending on your historiography, the claims to islands in the South China Sea can be traced back to the 1930s and 40s when the KMT regime under Chiang Kai-Shek began claiming those islands. Xi has continued to assert the nine-dash line as a geographical entity, which was first put forward in 1947. More importantly, this claim was submitted to Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the first time in an official diplomatic document in 2009. This can be seen as a real turning point for China. That again comes well before Xi Jinping took over. China asserts that it has historic rights to unspecified resources, as well as the right to exempt itself from the limits of international law regarding its maritime claims—this has been the case, officially, since 1998. 

China’s policies are informed by the idea that Chinese maritime agencies need to incrementally advance China’s interests in these disputes but abstain from anything that could be described as instability, i.e. not starting a war. There have been times where the level of tension has gone beyond what stability could be described as. There is a diplomatic aspect to China’s declarative policy, built around engaging with ASEAN, which has a key role regarding disputed territory. This is expressed in the formulation of a “dual-track approach” where island territorial disputes are negotiated only amongst countries that have claims. China begrudgingly acknowledges that ASEAN has a multilateral role in managing the maritime spaces that China claims.

How has China’s policy towards the South China Sea evolved? What factors are behind China’s more assertive turn in maritime Asia since the late 2000s? Has nationalism played a role?

The scramble for the Spratlys begins, in earnest, around 1970, when there was speculation over gas and oil reserves on the islands. Suddenly, countries wanted these islands, which were previously a kind of no man’s land. It was a dangerous area, inhabited mostly by adventurous fishermen and pirates—no country wanted to claim them. Through my research, I tried to identify as many year-by-year changes in the PRC’s behaviour since 1970. I then broke down these behaviours into different categories of assertiveness. That showed how China has constantly been increasing its assertiveness in the South China Sea since 1970. There are only four years where China does not appear to intensify its activities in some form. I found four distinct phases where the PRC’s activities rapidly accelerated qualitatively, ushering in new policy status quos. Notably, starting in 1973, the PRC evicted the South Vietnamese from the Paracel Islands and began displaying an interest in administering the maritime space beyond that island group. In 1987, the PRC moved into the Spratly Islands for the first time, using military force against Vietnam. In the 1990s, the PRC rolled out oil exploration efforts in disputed area and expanded into the portion of the Spratly Islands closest to the Philippines—another major turning point. 

China started building up its administrative presence rapidly in 2006-07 and started regularly employing coercive methods against its opponents at this time as well. People generally date China’s more assertive pivot it to either the Xi Jinping era or just prior—post-financial crisis, when the U.S appeared weakened—but the key shift happened earlier than that. It was in 2006 and 2007 that China began to use its specific capabilities for exercising administrative control over a wide expanse of maritime space—patrol boats, the maritime law enforcement agencies, and naval superiority, which underpins all of this. China’s naval power has been a key enabler of its enhanced administrative control in the region, but it does not tell the whole story. What is equally important is the longer-term story of China developing systems through which to administer maritime space through patrolling actions. 

That goal of comprehensively administering maritime spaces also has an important history. China had not shown any interest in administrating maritime spaces until 1973. The PRC had advanced its disputed claims to islands in the South and East China Seas before that, but it had not shown particular interest in controlling maritime space on a large scale, as it does now. After China wrote the UNCLOS-derived claims into its domestic legal frameworks, it also developed a domestic mandate and administrative liaison for creating law enforcement agencies, leading to a mandate for creating the capabilities it needed to implement this policy of expanding control. It is a long, but fascinating story, which highlights how international law can lead to unintended consequences.

China’s practice of sending long-range, high endurance patrol boats into disputed areas to unilaterally administer increased Chinese presence, without necessarily confronting adversaries started in the East China Sea in 2006. In 2008, China made its first entry into the territorial seas around the Senkaku Islands, which was a significant move. Territorial seas are considered to be sovereign space—this was a sign of China’s emerging confidence. China’s regular patrolling of these regions wouldn’t have been possible if not for those systems of maritime law enforcement, which China established in response to the challenges and opportunities of the international legal framework. This realist interpretation, with China’s naval power at the center, is only part of China’s increased assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.

Certainly, China’s policy seems aggressive and seems to accord with nationalist sentiments. China also seems to be oblivious to the costs , so a lot of outside analysts look at that and think maybe the need to impress popular nationalist public opinion is behind it. But when I looked more closely at how China has handled public opinion on the topic, I found that is generally not the case.

I recently put out a Red Book with the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S Naval War College examining the relationship between China’s domestic public opinion, and its foreign policy actions in the maritime space, particularly the South and East China Seas. The book has nine case studies of assertive PRC maritime behaviours, looking at whether public opinion is plausibly a driver of those behaviours, or whether public opinion was used by elites either for internal political ends or for strategic purposes.

What it shows, first of all, is that in those early cases where China’s maritime policy shifted in 2007-2008, the party-state did not tell the Chinese public about the assertive actions it was taking, so evidently public opinion had nothing to do with it. At that point, the South China Sea was not a particularly hot topic on the Chinese internet yet either. From 2009 nationalism started to take off. But still, when we look closely at cases like the Impeccable incident in 2009, or the Sino-Vietnamese cable cutting incidents around 2011, we find that the state did not claim any nationalist credit. The official comments and propaganda cast China as being the victim or even denied that the incidents had happened at all. 

There are some other later cases where the government did seem to take those nationalist credits, like the Second Thomas Shoal confrontations with the Philippines in 2013 and 2014, but I found in those case studies that this was at most a secondary motivation. Interestingly, there is one case, of China-Indonesia fisheries incidents in 2009 and 2010, where it seems like some lower-level agencies in the PRC state may have used the media and public opinion to bring about a tougher approach in opposing Indonesia’s arrests of Chinese fishermen at the bottom of the nine-dash line area. So that illustrates one possible case where public opinion has played a role. In the Scarborough Shoal and Diaoyu Islands crises in 2012, I argue the party-state sought to channel the public’s nationalist energies into its deterrence signaling to amplify the state’s threat signals. 

It is worth noting that my study of this was specifically about China’s conduct on the water in disputed areas. There are various other aspects to China’s policy that very likely were targeted to impress public opinion. However, the key finding is that if by “Chinese nationalism” we mean hawkish popular sentiments at the popular level, and if by maritime behaviour we mean its conduct on the water, I found surprisingly little evidence of public opinion shaping China’s maritime behaviour. 

Can we discuss China’s strategy and tactics in the South China Sea, which some refer to as “Salami Slicing”? 

This concept derives from the great game theorist and economist, Tom Schelling. Within the context of military alliances, the term refers to actions that will not trigger an adversary’s allies to come to aid. I’m not sure how much that specific line of thinking, about avoiding invoking alliance commitments, really features in the thinking behind China’s actions, especially in the South China Sea. The lens that the PRC has is a formulation called “rights defense and stability maintenance,” which means advance China’s interests, but do not create instability. This is similar but subtly different than salami slicing in that it is about avoiding what the PRC terms “instability,” which is a significantly broader and more political goal than avoiding triggering alliance commitments. After all, most of the South China Sea claimant countries don’t have alliances with the US. The basic idea of incremental advancements without triggering war is quite clearly at the center of the PRC’s strategy—gray zone conflict, below the threshold—whatever you want to call it. The most successful aspects of China’s policies in the maritime space in the last 15 years have been these gradual gains, which have not required confrontation. That fits with some interesting research by Dan Altman, which showed that it is far more common for a territory to be acquired by fait accompli rather than coercion. In the South China Sea, China has unilaterally built up an administrative presence, quite successfully creating a fait accompli without even confronting its adversaries. 

When China first started building up its presence, particularly around the nine-dash line area in the South China Sea, there was a deliberate decision to use unarmed patrol boats. A China Marine Surveillance captain once discussed the fact that China Marine Surveillance was a non-militarized and non-armed force, therefore, could show up more in controversial waters without necessarily triggering confrontations. This has been a wildly successful tactic, specifically designed to increase China’s presence without triggering open confrontation. Once that presence was established, it has subsequently been militarized, but that is different from using militarized forces in the first place. Sailing a patrol boat in disputed territory can be the starting point for enabling coercion against a country’s assets in the future. From 2013 onwards, the focus was on island-building. The construction of these artificial islands in the Spratlys, which China has occupied since the 1980s, has allowed the PRC to increase its unilateral administrative activities. Again, it shows that unilateral actions taken at one point in time can lay the groundwork for further advancements later, including militarization, which we have seen with the subsequent deployments of missiles and other military equipment to those artificial islands.

How would a regional security/defence alliance in the Indo-Pacific between the U.S, Canada, and other allies such as Japan impact China’s behavior in the region? 

I think the PRC system would very easily rationalize any alliance of Western democracies as being the result of ill-intention to contain China, and nothing to do with China’s behaviors or policies. The logic is similar to how often U.S-aligned liberal democracies can rationalize Islamist terrorism as having nothing to do with Western foreign policy in the Middle East. You can explain away such a development as being a result of some fundamental characteristic of your adversary. The dialectical mode of analysis emanating from the Marxist-Leninist software that the PRC still operates on lends itself to the notion that unfavorable developments are a result of enemy forces conspiring—which is always happening. The challenge of this variety of statecraft—alliance seeking to influence China’s behaviour—is that it may ultimately be instantly rationalized by the PRC. The PRC expects its adversaries’ existing alliances to be strengthened. It expects increased U.S presence in , this includes Canada, Australia, Japan, and India too. Fifteen years ago, Shinzo Abe started talking about a democratic diamond in the Indo-Pacific—the QUAD. Canada could make case for a democratic Pentagon, including the whole Pacific, but I don’t think that would surprise the PRC in the slightest. 

China is watching India closely after the events of last year on the Sino-Indian border, and there is some uncertainty as to how far India will go in its alignment with the QUAD. But countries building an alliance with India need to be careful not to provoke a showdown. The Modi administration is very nationalistic, and Modi has falling approval ratings after a disastrous handling of the pandemic—he also quite predictably got a boost from the border tensions with China last year. So there is that inherent risk in pursuing military alliances—states gain power from them, and thus may become emboldened in their actions. So it has to be done quite very carefully, and perhaps gradually. Thankfully, though, this is something the PRC is watching very closely, and so I think even small steps in this direction can get high-level attention in Beijing.

I think ASEAN is crucial. China sees ASEAN as a barometer of regional opinion. If Western liberal democracies want to have an impact on China’s policies, aligning as closely and conspicuously as possible with ASEAN’s consensus could show the PRC that it has gone too far. It is not in China’s best interest to isolate itself. Aligning with the ASEAN consensus to the maximum extent possible and engaging diplomatically to shape that consensus is the primary tactic I would suggest.

Andrew Chubb is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow, undertaking a three-year investigation of the role of domestic public opinion in international crisis diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific. A graduate of the University of Western Australia, his work examines the linkages between Chinese domestic politics and international relations. More broadly, Andrew’s interests include maritime and territorial disputes, strategic communication, political propaganda, and Chinese Communist Party history.

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