The South China Sea – Is it a Core Interest?

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[Ed. note – This piece first appeared at the Munk School of Global Affairs Portal.  It forms the second part of a three part examination by this humble blogger of the contemporary US-China relationship in the context of the South China Sea]

The predicted flashpoint for US-China relations has been for the last year and more the South China Sea (nan zhongguo hai 南中国海).  It is here that the US ‘China Threat School’ from the Washington beltway and the ‘China Can Say No’ (zhongguo keyi shuo bu 中国可以说不)from Beijing and the nationalists target US-China rivalry, competition and even conflict.  These experts and opinion makers see a growing inter-state rivalry. Each side urges their government to stand firm and defend the national interest.  What is it about the South China Sea that has marked it as such a central flashpoint?

In the recent past China has reasserted ‘historical’ claims over all the islets, including the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos and some 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometers along the nine-dotted U-shaped line (an old Guomindang assertion going back as far as 1947) Depending on interpretation this Chinese claim can be to all features, waters and resources or less aggressively a claim to all features and, for legal islands, a continental shelf and a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for each.  At least with respect to the former claim there appears to be no international legal ground or basis to assert such encompassing sovereignty. And even if both countries – that is China and the United States – rely only on the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and rights acquired by EEZ, the two countries disagree on what that means.   The US  – remember the US has failed to ratify UNCLOS – argues that the coastal state is allowed to retain only special commercial rights in a zone while the Chinese argue that the coastal state can control virtually any activity within the EEZ.

The current expenditures on the Chinese navy – the PLAN – have been directed until recently to weapons systems that are designed for “access denial”. This earlier PLAN strategy appeared to be:  (1) to secure approaches to Taiwan and deny the US access to it; (2) to deny the US and other near Asian neighbors access to the South China Sea; (3) to protect China’s sea lane lines of communication; and (4) hinder generally others sea lane lines of communication.

But that doctrine and spending seems to be changing.  Recently the Chinese have been planning a form of power projection. The Chinese are contemplating trials for its first carrier, an ex-Ukrainian carrier called the Varyag that has been renamed the Shi Lang.   The Chinese Navy has been planning this launch apparently to be followed by the construction of its own carriers with a new doctrine of “far sea defense” – a far more assertive policy.  This doctrine, among other things, would see Chinese warships escorting commercial vessels that are crucial to the Chinese economy through as far as the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca and on to China.

The rise in tensions – and the apparent rising assertiveness – of China in the region was initiated in part by what appeared to be China’s growing stake in the South China Sea.  Though it is somewhat complicated to tease out, it appears that rising tensions between the US and China over the South China Sea can be traced back to March 2010.  Then, two visiting US officials to China, Jeff Bader, at the time, senior director of Asian affairs at the National Security Council, and James Steinberg, Deputy Secretary of Defense held meetings with senior Chinese officials. They were were told by these Chinese officials (apparently State Councilor, Dai Bingguo, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai) that China would not tolerate any interference in the South China Sea and that the South China Sea was now part of China’s “core interest,” or at least so it was told to US and western media by US officials.  Such a statement it appeared elevated the South China Sea to equal status then with Taiwan and Tibet.  This South China Sea status was noted widely by western media particularly in the context of a Chinese Navy that had announced a new doctrine of “far sea defense” – a far more assertive policy, as noted earlier.

Though the western media has in the “on again- off again” tensions in the South China Sea repeated this declaration of “core interest” it may in fact not represent official Chinese views.  Chinese experts point to the statement by State Councilor Dai Bingguo.  Dai Bingguo is a senior Chinese official who has become one of the foremost and highest-ranking figures on Chinese foreign policy in recent years.  It was Dai Bingguo who remained at the G8 L’Aquila Summit after President Hu Jintao returned to China following riots in Xinjiang.  He has attended as a senior leader at the important US-China dialogues – The China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED).  At the second round in May 2010 – not long after the reported statement to US officials of “core interest”  – in which Dai Bingguo was in attendance – this is what Dai Bingguo said at his press conference on May 25, 2010:

Both sides recognized that China-US relations are of great significance to our two countries and the world and that cultivating and deepening mutual strategic trust between us is extremely important for the sound and steady development of China-US relations in the new era. The Chinese emphasized that while it may not be possible for China and the United States to agree on every issue, it is important that both sides observe the spirit and the principles of the three Sino-US joint communiqués and the China-US Joint Statement, respect and accommodate each other’s core interests and major concerns, and properly handle our differences and sensitive issues, especially concerning China’s core interests such as Taiwan and Tibet-related issues, (emphasis added) so as to consolidate the foundation of mutual trust.  If we keep to this right direction, we can overcome interferences, difficulties and obstacles, and take forward our relationship.

No mention of the South China Sea as a “core interest”.  In fact there is some reason to believe – without an official transcript – that what was said to the American officials was either not precisely conveyed, or was misinterpreted by officials and then the media.  So, apparently what was stated was that the South China Sea was “related to a China core interest” (sheji guojia hexin liyi –涉及国家核心利益) for instance the stability  and peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes as opposed to say Taiwan which would be:  (Taiwan shi zhongguo de hexin liyi – 台湾是中国的核心利益) – Taiwan is a core interest of China.

Well diplomacy is all about words and words and their interpretation are made more difficult by two languages.  Unfortunately too many observers have stated or repeated a China position on the South China Sea that appears not to be official and feeds interests on both sides that see the other as a growing threat.  The story continues but careful diplomacy is called for on both sides.

Image Credit:  Wikimedia Commons an image of the USS Peleliu