China’s Dangerous Ambiguity in the South China Sea

In October, Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu of the Academy of Military Science in Beijing asked in a speech at the Xiangshan Forum, the Chinese military’s annual dialogue with other states: What does militarization mean? She was responding to American concerns that China’s efforts to build up islands in the South China Sea contribute to international tensions.

General Yao poses a fair question. Why is China singled out as the culprit when the United States is the dominant military power in Asian waters? The United States maintains a naval presence in the Asia-Pacific that entails military cooperation with numerous regional powers, including other claimants to disputed territory and maritime zones, such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

But two aspects of Beijing’s passive-aggressive strategy explain why China is the main contributor to tensions in the region: China has deliberately not openly declared all of its South China Sea land claims, and it has committed to defending these undefined claims by using force.

China’s Dangerous Ambiguity in the South China SeaThe repercussions of this diplomatic minuet were illustrated a few days after Gen. Yao’s comments. On Oct. 27, the U.S.S. Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-controlled Subi Reef in the South China Sea. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the action an illegal entry into neighboring waters that threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests — without specifying exactly which sovereignty claim the United States was violating. Days later, China conducted aerial and maritime drills in the South China Sea and deployed two ships to counter further incursions.

Chinese maps with a nine-dash line covering approximately 80 percent of the area have been circulating for decades. Chinese leaders have stated repeatedly that islands within the area have been part of the country for centuries. In his speech at the National University of Singapore on Nov. 7, President Xi Jinping stated that “the South China Sea islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. It is the bounded duty of the Chinese government to uphold China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime rights and interests.”

When responding to alleged provocation, Chinese officials have used similarly vague language to protest. In the case of the U.S.S. Lassen maneuver, China’s Ministry of National Defense did not accuse the United States of violating China’s territory or exclusive economic zone. Instead, it stated that the United States had “threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests” and “endangered regional peace and stability.” In keeping its protest so general, China avoids all reference to a specific claim to the Subi Reef, a recently created island, and avoids the question of whether such a claim on Subi would give China controlling rights of the surrounding waters.

For want of clear official pronouncements, other countries act on the assumption that the controversial nine-dash map shows China’s claims. Other states may also be asking for more than they are entitled to, but they have made their claims public. China’s claims are enigmatic.

To complicate matters further, several issues in the South China Sea are legal gray zones. One is the vagueness of the Law of the Sea in defining which maritime features are islands or rocks that can sustain human habitation and economic life of their own. This matters because only geographical features that can support humans are entitled to special legal rights beyond a 500-meter safety zone that allows the controlling nation to enforce restrictions on the behavior of foreigners. Many features in the South China Sea are difficult to classify.

A second legal question is whether military activities can be restricted in so-called exclusive economic zones, which give countries rights over the exploration and use of marine resources within 200 nautical miles of their coast. Some states, such as China and India, claim that other states cannot carry out military activities in or over their exclusive economic zones without consent. Are surveillance activities allowed in such zones? From Chinese statements and practice near its mainland, it is clear that these activities are seen as illegal in Beijing.

But the point is we do not know if Beijing will apply this view to islands, some newly manmade, occupied by China in the South China Sea because we do not know the Chinese claims. In legal gray zones, international law develops from the customs established by state practice.

China makes its deliberate ambiguity more dangerous in its apparent commitment to defend undefined claims by force. Beijing’s 2015 defense white paper states that one objective of its military is to “safeguard” the country’s “maritime rights and interests” in a situation where “some of its offshore neighbors take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.” Hawkish military leaders give more reason for concern. Retired Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan has stated, for example, that if China is biding its time, its military should at least be ready to defend Chinese interests in the event of war.

Since China’s maritime claims are not clarified, it is impossible for others to determine where and when China is willing to use force, thus increasing the chance of conflict. The majority of small and middle powers in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore, react to an uncertain security environment by hedging: They seek to accommodate China’s growing influence primarily by establishing closer economic ties with Beijing while at the same time strengthening defense cooperation with Washington. Their priority is not to be seen as choosing sides in the ongoing China-U.S. strategic competition.

China’s policy of ambiguity leads to one conclusion: Beijing wants to expand its military presence in the South China Sea as a direct challenge to the U.S. alliance system because to do so would allow China to interfere with the free movement of military vessels and aircraft.

American leaders cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. Washington needs to show that international waters cannot be turned into special zones with restrictions on other nations.

China’s behavior suggests that it sees the American presence as a threat. If Beijing wishes to lower tensions, it should, as a starting point to negotiations, reassure Washington that it accepts the United States as part of Asia’s future. This requires avoiding changing the status quo in ways that ratchet up tensions.

Sending warships to oppose American displays of the freedom of navigation without explaining which legal principles Washington has violated is not a good start.

Liselotte Odgaard, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defense College, is the author of China and Coexistence: Beijing’s National Security Strategy for the 21st Century.

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