China Won’t Back Down in the South China Sea


China's j-31 stealth fighter jet as displaed at Zhuhai Air Show 2014. Image: Creative Commons

China’s j-31 stealth fighter jet as displaed at Zhuhai Air Show 2014. Image: Creative Commons

The National Interest article with the above title is right in foreseeing that China will not back down but its is wrong in regarding it as an issue of reputation.

No, it is an issue of humiliation, an issue of national dignity. China suffered humiliation by foreign powers for a century. Now, China is much stronger. Can it suffer humiliation again by the United States, Japan and Australia that are trying to urge it to respect a stupid arbitration ruling and give up its historical sovereignty, rights and interests to the South China Sea?

China has conducted an arms race with the US since US commencement to interfere with its disputes with other claimants in the South China Sea. It has developed sufficient rocket, air and naval forces to defeat the US in the area near it as it has geographical advantages there. However, US navy dominates the oceans and can easily cut China’s trade lifelines. That will be the major risk in fighting a war with the US.

However, when a nation is humiliated, it will fight even if it knows well it cannot win.

The article is entirely wrong in its speculation about China’s response as it regards it as an issue of reputation.

If it had been an issue of reputation, China would not have responded so strongly.

China is now carrying out regular combat patrol of the South China Sea with its air force. Its warplanes are fully armed to deal with any provocation!

Not only China, Taiwan has sent its warship to the area around its Taiping Island to protect its rights and interests within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone that the arbitration ruling has denied.

Respect the ruling and give up a country’s sovereignty, rights and interests? Even a small and weak region that needs US protection like Taiwan cannot stand such humiliation, let alone China the largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power and second largest in terms of GDP.

It was not an issue of hegemony as mentioned in the article as China has tried hard to resolve the disputes peacefully through bilateral negotiations for a long time.

Now, a country has used an arbitration ruling that the United Nations does not want to have anything to do with to entirely deprive China’s sovereignty, rights and interests to the South China Sea. The US, Japan and Australia are so stupid as to believe that it is an issue of reputation so that they are able to urge China to accept the humiliation.

As a result, they have forced China to act like a hegemon in the South China Sea: Regular air force combat patrol to safeguard its sovereignty, rights and interests.

What China will do? It certainly does not want to fight a war with the US as the US will not fight for other countries’ interests in the South China Sea. It will try hard to ease tension and maintain good relations with the US, but it will never back down in the South China Sea.

It will conduct peaceful negotiations to solve the disputes with other claimants, but if other claimants act unreasonably and try to urge China to respect the arbitration ruling, China will simply exploit the fishing, energy and other resources alone like a hegemon there.

What can the US do? It will conduct freedom of navigation operations. Okay, China can allow such operations as long as they do not interfere with China’s exploitation of resources, which the US has no right to interfere as it utterly has no interest in the resources.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on National Interest’s article, full text of which can be viewed below:

China Won’t Back Down in the South China Sea

The findings of the South China Sea Arbitration conducted at The Hague refutes China claim of indisputable sovereignty, and invalidates the ‘nine-dash line’ as a mechanism to delineate that claim—a heavy defeat for China. As expected, China has rejected the ruling. So what’s Beijing’s next likely move?

This dispute is one aspect of a broader Chinese ambition towards rejuvenation under a China Dream and restoration to ‘middle kingdom’ status that would see its neighbors in Southeast Asia relegated to tributary powers. That new Chinese hegemony would challenge US strategic primacy in Asia. The crisis feeds into a Chinese narrative of a ‘Century of Humiliation’ promoted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to sustain its political legitimacy. So suddenly backing down on a critical Chinese interest would be an intolerable blow to CCP legitimacy, and in particular the reputation of Xi Jinping.

China will use soft power and diplomacy to counter global responses against Beijing’s repudiation of a rules-based international order, but its steady challenge to that order won’t waver, and Beijing won’t back down in the South China Sea.

From a military perspective, Chinese control of the South China Sea allows the extension of a PLA anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubble’ (here, here, and here) further to the south and east. That allows the PLA to fully employ more advanced submarine and naval surface combatants, longer-ranged strike warfare, and more sophisticated air power to delay or deter US military intervention in any future regional crisis, such as over Taiwan, and support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) power projection into the Indian Ocean. The South China Sea is also a bastion for China’s Jin class SSBNs and the follow-on Type 096 Tang class SSBNs, particularly in the in the China Sea Basin south of China’s main SSBN base at Hainan Island, which has a maximum depth of 6,000 metres.

Beijing has already made it extremely difficult for ASEAN to reach a unified position on the rival claims to the South China Sea and is sure to continue to coerce the organisation, particularly at the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting in Laos from the 21–26 July. It’ll try to do a deal with unpredictable Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, who has suggested bilateral negotiations with Beijing. It may walk away from long-running negotiations over a multilateral ‘Code of Conduct’. It’ll continue to use both diplomatic pressure and bilateral economic inducements to buy off individual states.

China may also choose to go hard and press claims through military power. That would allow Beijing to demonstrate to the US, Japan and the region—as well as its domestic population—that it won’t be cowed. China has employed ‘grey zone’ actions that keep the use of coercive power below a level that would generate a retaliatory response from the US. Were China to shift above that level, the potential for miscalculation on either side could generate a rapid escalation of events, leading to a military conflict that China simply couldn’t afford to lose, but ultimately may not have the means to win.

There are some clear military steps (and here) that China could contemplate. It has already militarized disputed islands in the Paracels, so extending this to the Spratly Islands is a logical next step. That could include deploying combat aircraft, ground-based missile systems for air defense and anti-surface warfare, and naval forces to artificially created structures on Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Cuarteron Reef. China may contemplate fortifying Scarborough Shoal—a mere 150nm from Manila—or seizing Second Thomas Shoal and ejecting Philippines Marine forces there. Beijing could declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts or all of the South China Sea—and rigorously enforce such an ADIZ using air capabilities deployed forward to artificial structures in the Spratly Islands. Finally, China could use its Coast Guard and ‘strategic fishing fleets’ even more assertively to challenge the interests of other claimants, and allow these ‘white hulls’ and ‘little blue men’ (and here) to be supported more directly by PLAN ‘grey hulls’ in a manner that forces China’s opponents to back down.

The Arbitral Tribunal ruling has thrown down a gauntlet to Beijing that it must respond to. At the moment, a strong US naval force in the South China Sea centered on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, constrains China’s freedom to act. Absent that forward US military presence, China could calculate a window of opportunity exists in the last months of an Obama Administration, which prefers leading from behind. That could prompt it to act while the US is distracted with a presidential election and seek to present a fait accompli to an incoming administration. Importantly, China probably calculates a tougher ride with a President Clinton, and an entirely unpredictable situation with a President Trump. So from Beijing’s vantage point it may be better to act now rather than risk being deterred in the near future.

Certainly military options carry the risk of miscalculation and escalation, and weaken China’s claim to a peaceful rise, but this cost must be balanced against risk in not acting. Failure to act decisively by Beijing could reinforce a domestic perception of a regime ‘all at sea’ with no clear idea how to proceed further, which would then have implications for regime legitimacy and domestic stability. Already Chinese censors are trying to keep a lid on nationalist anger. Fear of domestic unrest may prompt the Central Military Commission in Beijing to consider the military options more closely.

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6 Comments on “China Won’t Back Down in the South China Sea”

  1. johnleecan says:

    Good thing there’s Inter-National Interest articles that are fair, objective and unbiased analysis and commentaries. Full text of an article can be viewed below:

    USA won’t back down on South China Sea

    After China rejected the illegal ruling made by the USA controlled and influenced The Hague, and after the UN has declared that the PCA is not a UN agency and not related to UNCLOS – a heavy defeat for the USA. As expected, America is in a quandary. So what is Washington next move?

    This dispute is one that USA is trying to take advantage of of a greater ambition towards rejuvenation under an American Dream and restoration to “World Hegemon” status which would relegate other countries to colored skin ranks. USA hegemony would challenge a rising China. The crisis feeds into an American narrative of “World’s most powerful” promoted by American democracy to sustain its political legitimacy. So suddenly backing down on a critical American interest would be an intolerable blow to USA legitimacy, and in particular the reputation of USA Hegemon.

    USA will use coercion and threats to counter global support for China’s repudiation of a illegal based American order.

    Washington has already exerted pressure for Asean to reach a unified position to denounce China and is sure to continue to coerce the organization, particularly at the Asean Foreign Minister’s meeting in Laos. It’ll continue to use both diplomatic pressure and bilateral economic and military inducement to buy off individual states.

    USA may also choose to go hard and coerce nations through military intimidation. That would allow Washington to demonstrate to China and other nations – as well as its domestic population – that it won’t be cowed. USA has employed ‘grey zone’ actions that keep the use of coercive power below a level that would generate a retaliatory response from China. Were the USA is to shift above that level, the potential for miscalculation on either side could generate a rapid escalation of events, leading to a military conflict that USA simply couldn’t afford to lose, but ultimately may not have the brains to win.

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  2. Fre Okin says:

    “China may also choose to go hard and press claims through military power. That would allow Beijing to demonstrate to the US, Japan and the region—as well as its domestic population—that it won’t be cowed. ”

    As I said before, PCA verdict is politicized against China because of US fear China may be forced to evict PH and VN from islands they illegally occupy in the Spratlys. These are islands in the Nine Dash Line, especially those occupied by Vietnam.

    Imagine China take over a few Vietnamese islands and declare a truce. If these islands are ruled as Islands by PCA and not rocks, then China will suddenly be able to have 200 NM EEZ around each of these islands, vastly extending Chinese control and further militarise them to scare US out of the South China Sea.

    So we see why US is so much in bed with Vietnam because US fear the Islands occupied by VN may fall into Chinese hands, especially those that lies nearest to the busy shipping lanes. It is this fear that is the reason PCA rule all the islands, including Taiping island as rocks, trying to diminish China’s area of effective control in the South China Sea.

    All China need to do is to grab one island and exert 200 NM EEZ in a prime location to control the South China Sea. Vietnam must be very very nervous and US cannot do a thing because there is no security agreement other than selling more useless weapons to her which China can counter without any problem. Of course this is not going to happen now that PCA have defrauded the public with this islands as rocks lies.

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  3. […] via China Won’t Back Down in the South China Sea — Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements […]

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  4. Simon says:

    China can decide who becomes the next American president by throwing public support to one candidate the anti China Americans will vote the other. Trump knows this because he deliberately cause a rift with China at the Rebulican convention.

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  5. Simon says:

    Actually China’s reputation would suffer if it abide by the illegal arbitration. They would look timid and afraid. Other countries will see China as weak and too easily give up its historical claim that is so important to them. Other countries will them look down and humiliate China more be its in trade or territorial infringements.
    Rejecting the ilegal arbitartion and enforcing its sovereinty China make other countries fear and respect them more. I notice how timid the Americans became recently when China displayed its naval and air power in excercise that the Chinese are willing to fight anyone anytime.
    History tells us respect are gained from display of military prowess and the ability to protect its interest.

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  6. Steve says:

    Back to the first principle — As long as China do not fire the first shot, China wins and will gain unipolarity in the SCS. China has one billion dollar oil rigs, economic stability, reliable partnerships with countries including US and has no escalatory military commitment in other countries. The US is unstable and cannot afford a war. I believe this latest move of air patrol is a military genius.

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