The toughening of China’s policies in the South and East China Seas is widely regarded as a defining characteristic of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. But while it is true that the PRC has become more assertive in its maritime disputes under Xi, China had already been on such a trajectory since 2006. Many changes in China’s maritime dispute behaviour under Xi may be better understood as continuities.
States’ maritime dispute policies comprise three levels of actions: publicly declared policies (declarative), unilateral administration of the disputed area (demonstrative) and threats or use of force (coercive). On each level, it is unlikely that a different CCP leader would have presided over significantly less assertive maritime policy across the past six years.
China’s publicly stated maritime policy under Xi has contained three key elements. The first, building China into a ‘maritime great power’, was put forward by former president Jiang Zemin at the ‘Two Meetings’ back in 2000. Since then, the goal has progressively been upgraded in party-state documents, notably in the 2008 State Council planning outline on maritime activities.
The second element of Xi’s declared maritime policy is managing the dialectical tension between advancing China’s claims and avoiding military escalation. While Xi emphasised this idea at a 31 July 2013 Politburo study session, PRC policy statements have featured this formulation since 2008.
The third feature has been the indignant response to the 2013–16 South China Sea arbitration case brought on by the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Xi probably paid close attention to the case, but it is hard to imagine Beijing’s response being significantly different under another leader.
The PRC withdrew from the UNCLOS’s compulsory dispute resolution procedures in 2006, showing its intention to avoid international legal processes in regard to its maritime claims. And in 2009 the PRC first attached its infamous nine-dash line map to an official diplomatic document for the first time, suggesting it did not consider its claims to be limited to the maritime zones provided for in the UNCLOS.
China’s most consequential unilateral administrative move under Xi has been the building of its seven outposts on the Spratly Islands into large artificial islands. Xi implicitly claimed the credit in his report to the 19th Party Congress when he lauded ‘South China Sea island construction’ as among the key achievements since the previous party congress — at which he took power.
Yet here it is unclear that Xi made the difference, rather than the PRC’s increasing financial and technological means. The island-building campaign was the latest move — on an entirely new scale — in a long line of measures China has taken since the early 1980s to expand its presence in the Spratly Islands. The operation was enabled by the acquisition of dozens of large dredgers, beginning in the early 2000s.
Another key pattern of unilateral action in Xi’s maritime policy has been regular Coast Guard patrols within 12 nautical metres of the disputed Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. The patrols were initiated in the wake of the Japanese government’s nationalisation of three of the islands in September 2012, just before Xi formally took power, and it has been reported that Xi oversaw the response to the crisis.
China’s policy here had been progressively hardening since 2006, when it launched ‘regular rights defence patrols’ and began unilaterally exploiting disputed gas fields. The trend was most vividly manifested in 2010 when, amidst a major surge in state-sponsored fishing near the disputed islands, a Chinese trawler rammed a Japanese Coast Guard ship and Beijing responded with further escalation. It seems unlikely that a different PRC leader to Xi would have refrained from patrolling the disputed waters.
Turning to maritime coercion, most of the PRC’s activities involving threat or use of force under Xi have continued Hu-era patterns of behaviour. These include destruction of equipment and confiscation of the catches of Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracel Islands (continuous since 2007 or before), clashing with Indonesia over Chinese fishing boats detained in their EEZ (first reported in 2010) and physical exclusion of Philippine boats from Scarborough Shoal (since May 2012).
The most salient example of Xi-era coercion is the Chinese HYSY-981 oil rig that operates in disputed waters. The PRC conducted this type of operation in 2006 and 2007 — leading to intense on-water clashes with Vietnam — and again in 2010. As with Xi’s island-building campaign, the key difference is capacities: the PRC now possesses a gargantuan new drilling rig and dozens more accompanying law enforcement ships.
One new coercive policy in the Xi era has been the threat to blockade the Philippines’ outpost aboard a rusting navy ship grounded on Second Thomas Shoal. But other Hu-era coercive activities at sea have actually been absent under Xi, notably the numerous cases of interference in Vietnamese and Philippine energy survey projects between 2007 and 2012.
The argument that — so far — Xi Jinping’s leadership has made relatively little difference to China’s policy in the South and East China Sea disputes is counterintuitive because China has become more assertive in a variety of ways since Xi took power. For non-claimant states with a stake in the stability and security of Asia’s maritime spaces, the most important implication is that the fundamental direction of PRC policy — incremental advancement towards control of China’s maritime periphery — is not easily amenable to change.
Rather than risky demonstrations of ‘resolve’ aimed at convincing China to cease advancing its position, the basic goal should be to contribute to countering whatever objectionable moves Beijing does make. This may be pursued by coordinating with neighbouring countries to generate regional diplomatic responses to provocations, helping to build capacity among regional maritime law enforcement agencies, and maintaining the South China Sea’s international status through continued patrols.
Andrew Chubb is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program, and a Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre.
This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 9th of April 2019.