Understanding China’s next move in the South China Sea.

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands

Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands, January 29, 2016. Image Credit South China Morning Post


I will leave the ‘understanding China’s next move’ section towards the end.

However the 11-page summarised press release of The Permanent Court of Arbitration on 12 July 2016 is a watershed.

It reads that China’s historical 9-dash lines are incompatible with the modern EEZ regime. The technical definition of a natural “island” is equally deliberated.  Rocks, which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life, can’t be granted with exclusive economic zone or continental shelf status. This definition itself is a major blow to China’s claims in the Spratlys.

Despite the above, one should not lose sight on the fact that disputes have also never been purely a legal or technical matter. Features in the South China Sea (SCS) have long taken a deeper socio-political meaning of being symbols of its “Chinese sovereignty”. The inclusion of Spratly and Paracel islands in the “Map of Chinese,” has been the practice of the Kuomintang Administration since 1935. The Communist Party reutilized the map in 1949 as a way to reinforce its claim over the waters.

In this context, political, historical interpretations and emotional sentiments are inseparable. It is likely as others to influence the mindset of the average Chinese citizens and Beijing both in their understanding and approach to the disputed waters.

 Bill Hayton, at Chatham House on July 12 also argued that China’s claim in the South China Sea was always emotional than historical facts. Much of the narratives emerged from the sense of national violation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and with mixed misunderstandings about history with poor translations of foreign maps.

He pointed to a specific historical incident where a Chinese Consular Officer during a fact-finding effort was surprised to find out both Spratley and Paracel are two different islands. This occurred on 26th July 1933 at US Costal Geodetics Institute, Manila – a few months after China discovered French-Indochina had occupied one of the Islands.

First, this incident gives us an insight into the hastiness and ambivalence state of earlier Chinese officials in their pursuit to anticipate other claimant’s move. These factors may have also played a role in China’s wanton claim (9 Dash line) as to ensure that none of the islands in the vast ocean escapes its attention either rightly or wrongly.

Second, which is more critical – this form of spontaneous unverified claims are taught and regurgitated at the national classroom and political system over the decades.

Geography textbooks in China since the 1940’s has made a point to stress the southernmost of Chinese territory which lies at Zeng-Mu Ansha, (James Shoal) which is 1800 km from mainland China. What Chinese students have not been taught, though, is that James Shoal is only 80 km northwest of Bintulu, Malaysia.

Debatable historical narratives are also used to bolster greater maritime claims.  Hainan state media recently reported on the existence of an “extraordinary document” – a 600-year-old book on SCS containing evidence of vital, national importance. Claims are yet to be proven. The book as reported by BBC was “thrown away” due to damage.

Periods of exposure to questionable variations on the South China Sea in the Chinese political belief and education system yielded unquestioning citizens with a sense of self-righteousness and entitlements towards the SCS waters. In other words, the ultranationalist.

Such sentiment has been clear, when The Hague verdict, which sided the Philippines, was announced on 12 July 2016 – Chinese citizens immediately took their condemnation and vitriols to the outcome on Weibo, (Chinese equivalent to twitter). While public protests’ targeting KFC, Apple, and Filipino fruit products also took place in Changsha in Hunan province. Chinese citizen in Australia staged a street protest in Melbourne on 23 of July.

Beijing’s did make an effort to remove a majority of inflammatory remarks on Weibo and censure some protests in China. The Philippines Embassy was also provided with security in anticipation of mob protest.

However what many would not realize is, all these critical events feed subtle pressure and a reminder to Beijing. The ultranationalist citizens it breeds for decades is watching especially those that are active online. Beijing may not have the middle-ground option on this. Any perceived softening of position, on the contrary, will threaten President Xi Jinping’s position in the Communist Party and worst still – fan unmanageable nationalist demands.

Hence any expectations for a change in Beijing’s attitude and interest towards the South China Sea should be toned down. It is never easy to influence with (legal facts/modern history interpretation) when this issue, involves cultivated emotions and political sentiments.

Moving to a geostrategic angle of the case – it is worth to understand that, The Hague verdict has made an impact. It has officially published and documented China’s historical claims including its military/fishing activity in the region as invalid and illegal. China certainly will take the latest decision into its negotiation strategy.

However, given its vested political and historical interest – the precise gist of ‘negotiation strategy’ here means a strong possibility for China to work around The Hague’s decision instead of working with the decision to achieve a mutual compromise. Various routes exist within the realm of geostrategic. I have explored two most likely options.

New Colonies on disputed waters

The logical route is for China to populate the artificial islands it has built over the years either through tourism or fishing outpost. This possibility is not far-fetched considering how it has turned Woody Island on the Paracel’s as one of Hainan’s sub-district city. Named as Yongxing Dao, the prefecture has a population of 1000 Chinese citizens with its own Mayor – Xiao Jie since 2012.

Similar efforts may be in the pipeline pertinently for the Spratley archipelagos. This form of creating facts on the ground provides potent advantages to China on two fronts. First, by having its population on an island, it provides a legitimate argument for China to provide civilizational needs and security. While the provision of such needs will naturally lead to the establishment of settlements or cities.

Second, by having a slow transmigration process on the disputed islands, especially on the hotly contested Spratlys – China will be able to further entrench its territorial trademark and tangible presence. The concrete presence of citizens will in-turn dampen the incentive for other claimants to press China further. Over a period of time, this strategy only serves to disqualify their claims – albeit artificially.

Al Jazeera on the 22nd of June reported that Chinese cruise ships will regularly bring tourists to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea by 2020. The news has been picked from media inside China. This may be an inaugural move towards the broader objective.

Financial Incentives

Providing aid and financial assistance may be another geostrategic approach for China to pursue in South East Asia (SEA). Specifically, China will provide aid and assistance to its close and poorer neighbours such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos in an exchange for their possible support on its SCS policy. This has already occurred and its impact is clearly seen during the last ASEAN 49th ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting. In this instance, Cambodia has been successful in halting a robust joint communiqué on China. It is also worth noting that China did announce a US$600 million in aid to Cambodia to develop the latter’s election, education and health infrastructures on the 15th of July 2016 – just a few days before the official meeting.
China may further pursue this path and attach political conditionalities to needy recipients in ASEAN. What is imperative now is for China to reduce any chances for ASEAN members to exhibit a solid and joint solidarity with the Philippines or follow the same route as the latter did in The Hague. In this context, financial incentives may serve this objective well.


The bottom line is, China is less likely to give up on its projects in the South China Sea given its political, historical and attached sentiments to the issue. ASEAN should understand and work with this.

Second, in my view, the burden to find a middle ground solution must not befall only on Foreign Ministries. Civil Societies in ASEAN countries should take the intellectual initiative to engage in this discourse.

Efforts may take in the formation of independent and exclusive South China Sea Think Tanks. Key experts on Oceanography, Chinese and SEA historians, China’s political analyst, diplomats and of course political appointees should dissect and engage with the issue critically. Second, it is worth knowing that the SCS issue is multidimensional which involve maritime history, legal, geostrategic and socio-political element – hence the exclusivity of Think-Tank discourse on SCS is crucial.

The need to educate the public and concern domestic stakeholders on SCS is a vital subject area, which deserves further attention in ASEAN member states. This is a topic, which I hope to explore further in future articles.

This article was written by Ferooze Ali and has appeared on theSun ON Thursday, August 18, 2016