With tensions running high over disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing has outlined a strategy to boost its naval reach. DW speaks to analyst Nong Hong about China's motives and the implications for the region.
In a policy document issued by the State Council, the Communist-ruled country's cabinet, China vowed to increase its "open seas protection", stressing the need for "active defense" at sea as part of an update to its military strategy. In its white paper on military strategy, Beijing accused "some offshore neighbors of taking provocative actions and reinforcing their military presence on China's reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied."
In response, the navy of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will "gradually shift its focus from offshore waters defense to a combination of offshore waters defense and open seas protection," said the paper published on May 26. It comes amid growing international concern over Beijing's land reclamation and construction of military facilities on disputed islands in the South China Sea and suggestions it could be planning to impose air and sea restrictions over the area.
Beijing claims most of the potentially energy-rich waterway, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, arguing that it is asserting its so-called "historic rights" to maritime resources in the area.
Nong: 'China's showing its strong political will and determination to secure and maintain its territorial integrity'
In a DW interview, Dr. Nong Hong, Director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the China-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), talks about Beijing's stance in the dispute and why she believes escalating tensions with the US must be eased through regular consultations.
DW: What are the key messages of the State Council"s white paper?
Dr. Nong Hong: "China's Military Strategy," released on May 26, 2015, is the ninth national defense white paper of China since 1998, which for the first time elaborates comprehensively the missions and strategic tasks of China's armed forces in the new political environment and emphasizes on the essence of the strategic concept of active defense.
There are four critical security domains highlighted in this white paper, namely, to address challenges for outer space security, to protect the security of strategic sea lines of communication (SLOC) and overseas interests, to keep the nuclear capacity at the minimum level to meet national security demand, and to increase the capacity of cyber security.
What does is reflect about China's intentions in the South China Sea?
Some question the critical timing of the release of this white paper that is coincidental with the increasing tensions over the South China Sea dispute. Be it "coincidence" or not, China shows its strong political will and determination to secure and maintain its territorial integrity and sovereign rights in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
According to the strategy paper, the navy will shift its focus to "open seas protection," rather than "offshore waters defense" alone. What exactly does this mean, particularly in relation to the disputed South China Sea?
In general, the PLA is seeking to shift away from a narrow focus on defense of its territory and near-periphery, toward the ability to defend and secure Chinese national interests further abroad. For the PLA Navy this will mean moving from an emphasis on "offshore waters defense" to an equal focus on "offshore waters defense" and "open seas protection."
China wants to play more of a role in protecting the security of strategic SLOCs and oversea interests, and participate in international maritime cooperation, so as to provide strategic support for building itself into a maritime power.
To which extent does China intend to push on with construction and island- building in the South China Sea?
China's activities in its features will be governed on international law, including rights provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As explained by a spokeswoman from Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China on April 19, China's activities are mainly for civilian purposes, but also are intended to serve "necessary military defense requirements."
China seeks to improve relevant functions the islands and reefs as well as to better safeguard national territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, to better meet its international responsibilities and obligations.
The statement added that the civilian facilities would provide services to China and its neighboring countries, as well as international vessels sailing in the South China Sea.
How does China view the United States' actions and policy in the South China Sea?
Though the United States has openly welcomed a rising China as a constructive competitor and a responsible stakeholder in the existing international order, the long standing territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea have put China in an awkward position in which it has to deal with the United States as an important stakeholder, in addition to its existing burden with other claimant states.
Reclamation is not the only, or even the major driver, of the gradual tensions in the disputed South China Sea. The divergent legal interpretations of "the legitimacy of military activities in the foreign EEZ" and the perception gap between the legal culture and the maritime dispute settlement mechanisms and what they imply for the South China Sea disputes are specific long-standing issues that need to be addressed by China and the United States. The land reclamation activities just add another keyword to this existing talk-show.
It is certainly not in China's interest to be labeled a maritime coercer, nor in its interest to see formed a code of conduct that falls outside the framework of China-ASEAN centrality.
An increasing US military presence in the South China Sea, in the name of responding to maritime coercion, and an enhanced alliance between other claimant states and non- claimant states led by the United States in the name of taking cost-imposing measures does not line-up with China's desire to solve the South China Sea issues through negotiations among the claimant states, be they bilateral or multilateral.
The US Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft directly flying over a Chinese administered artificial island constructed atop the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is simply not constructive to the management of the South China Sea dispute, and not helpful for a healthy China-US relation in maritime domain.
In addition to the question of the legitimacy of US’s activities under UNCLOS, activities of this kind has the potential of triggering accidents at sea, like EP 3 in 2001, which is not the interests of China and the United States.
These two countries, as well as all international and regional stakeholders shall work together to secure the freedom of navigation governed by UNCLOS, and secure the safe operation of navigation at sea based on international regulations. It is time to initiate a regional mechanism in line with the safety and security of navigation, e.g. an Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) or a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in this region.
How could China and the US find common ground in this situation?
In order to resolve this paradox, China and the United States have no choice but to engage each other and maintain regular consultations on how they can coexist with their respective core interests. After all, the Asia Pacific is big enough for both countries to share and exert their respective influence without constantly being at each other's throats.
While China's rise stands a good chance of triggering a regional power shift, the United States needs to acknowledge China's rise and its core interests. Similarly, China must respect the legitimate interests of the United States in the South China Sea, especially freedom of navigation in line with UNCLOS, which in any case is also in China's common interest.
What would work practically in the favor of both countries is to explore the fields of developing maritime cooperation. Joint efforts in anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden have provided one successful example.
Providing search and rescue at sea and humanitarian assistance would be the areas for both countries to take a lead in this region with their naval capacity. It will be in China and the United States' interests to initiate a regional mechanism in line with the safety and security of navigation, e.g. an Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) or a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in this region.
These escalating tensions seem to be already leading to a military build-up in the region. What is China willing to do to ease tensions?
China's image has been jeopardized by an international public relations campaign in which China has not done well enough in comparison to other claimant states - states which could easily win the moral high ground as smaller and weaker nations - in the long-standing territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Tremendous legal and diplomatic efforts are needed to achieve China's strategic goal.
As suggested by the above multilateral proposals, despite potential challenges, there is great hope for China and ASEAN to solve their differences in the South China Sea in their preferred ways. But for China and the United States, it is a different story. In order to resolve this paradox, China and the United States have no choice but to engage each other and maintain regular consultations on how they can coexist with their respective core interests.
Dr. Nong Hong is Director of the Center for Oceans Law and Policy at the China-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) and Senior Fellow at the China Institute of the University of Alberta, Canada.