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China's maritime disputes: 'Fear, honor and interest'

The East and South China Seas are the scene of escalating disputes. IISS analyst William Choong talks to DW about China's drive for territorial expansion and what adjacent powers can do to de-escalate tensions.

Fueled by China's growing assertiveness as a rising global power, tensions over territorial disputes have mounted in the Asia-Pacific region. In November last year, Beijing unilaterally expanded its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to cover most of the East China Sea, triggering a bitter dispute with Tokyo as the ADIZ also covers the airspace above the Japanese-controlled but Chinese-claimed Senkaku/Diayou Islands.

China has also thrown its weight around further south, claiming almost the entire oil- and gas-rich South China Sea and rejecting rival claims to parts of it from Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. Tensions recently escalated between Hanoi and Beijing after China placed a giant oil rig in waters claimed by both countries, with the two communist countries trading accusations of responsibility for aggravating the situation.

Ahead of the 13th IISS Asia Security Summit starting on May 30 in Singapore, Dr. William Choong, a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), says in a DW interview that although neighboring countries have very limited options to restrain China, the probability of a major conflict breaking out in the Asia-Pacific remains low.

DW: What is at the core of China's maritime disputes in the East and South China Sea?

William Choong: On a general level, we see China insisting on what it claims to be legitimate sovereignty rights to large areas of the East and South China Seas. The Chinese repeat to themselves that they don't have to heed international law when it comes to such claims.

William Choong Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security IISS

Choong: "What China's neighbors don't accept is that Beijing is not adhering to generally accepted norms of behavior"

Xi Jinping's overarching narrative of the Chinese dream is based on the idea of restoring China's honor. The Chinese president sees a China that is all for peace and cooperation with regional countries. Yet China will not step back from tensions or conflict. It's all part of the message that China is a power to be reckoned with and has a right to prosecute its claims on territorial issues.

How willing are China's neighbors to accept China's political, economic, and military rise?

China's neighbors do acknowledge the country's rise and that it has a natural place in this part of the world. China is granted a place at the table of every major regional forum and this shows that many, if not all neighboring countries, accept that the People's Republic is a legitimate major power in its own right.

What they don't accept, however, is that Beijing is not adhering to generally accepted norms of behavior. Many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for instance, believe that China is contravening the spirit of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) which stipulates that no country should resort to the use of force or intimidation over disputes in the South China Sea.

They also argue that China is not respecting the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) whereby each country has a right to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters as well as 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This, for instance, is what lies at the core of the recent dispute between China and Vietnam.

A Chinese ship, left, shoots water cannon at a Vietnamese vessel, right, while a Chinese Coast Guard ship, center, sails alongside in the South China Sea, off Vietnam's coast, Wednesday, May 7, 2014.

The Chinese are not going to stop their "oil-rig diplomacy" or cease occupying maritime features in the South China Sea, says Choong

To which extent has the current escalation of tensions in the Asia-Pacific region been made worse by political opportunism, such as a means to divert from internal issues?

Over the years, the world has witnessed not only the rise of China, but also of many other Asian countries, which, in turn, has led to the global economic center of gravity moving from West to East. Given that governments in most of these nations maintain their grip on power based on their ability to provide jobs and the promise that they can defend national territory, no leader can actually afford to be seen as taking a laid-back minimalist approach to territorial disputes.

If you take the recent dispute between Hanoi and Beijing as an example, the Vietnamese government felt that it needed to be seen as doing something to protest against China's move. As there were few other alternatives for ordinary Vietnamese to express their sentiment, the government allowed the protests as a means of releasing pressure.

What can smaller states like The Philippines or Vietnam or do to defend their claims against a rising global power like China?

To be honest, not very much. In terms of military options, for instance, The Philippines depend on US assistance. As far as legal alternatives are concerned, even if the Southeast Asian nation were to win the arbitration case it recently filed against China at a United Nations tribunal in The Hague, this would only represent a moral victory at best as it wouldn't change any facts on the ground. The same would hold true for any similar move made by Vietnam.

The Chinese are not going to stop their "oil-rig diplomacy" or cease occupying maritime features in the South China Sea. The best case scenario for Manila and Hanoi would be a situation where the Chinese seek to clarify its nine-dash line claim and provide a legal argument congruent with the principles of UNCLOS as to why this line represents a valid claim.

This, however, would be unlikely. A deliberate loss of ambiguity on China's part with regard to the nine-dashed line would be only invite criticism from regional countries that it is not hewing to the norms of international law.

Many find it difficult to understand why tensions have escalated so much over small rocks. What is China's dispute with Japan in the East China Sea really about?

In June 2011 shows three islands of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, (from front to back) Minamikojima, Kitakojima and Uotsuri Island. (Kyodo)

The Sino-Japanese issue over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is a dispute on multiple levels

When it comes to the Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, we are not just talking about a speck of rocks in the East China Sea, and a triptych of what Greek historian Thucydides called “fear, honour and interest."

First of all, the spat is about what Japan did to China between 1895 and 1945. Secondly, it is about how Japan is currently facing up to China with the aid of the world's remaining superpower, the United States. And last but not least, it is a dispute about the future power configuration in the Asia-Pacific region, with both countries vying for the leading role.

US President Barack Obama recently reasserted his "pivot" towards Asia in a recent visit to the region. But doubts still persist. What role can the United States play in these disputes?

Washington has been trying to play an increasingly proactive role in such disputes, arguing, for instance that China should come up with a coherent defense of its nine-dash line claims based on UNCLOS principles. In an ideal situation, the US can play the role of the honest broker, but I am afraid that this is as far as it can go. For example, the US won't be able to offer much support to Vietnam if push comes to shove over the Paracel Islands.

As far as US treaty allies Japan and The Philippines are concerned, there are two aspects to consider. Even though the US has pledged that it would come to the aid of its allies in the event of an armed conflict, Washington has been trying hard to restrain all parties involved from getting into an altercation.

The reason for this is that the US faces a dilemma which is forcing it to walk a fine line between deterrence and diplomacy. On the one hand, Washington needs to show that it has the credibility to make good on its promise to defend both Japan and the Philippines. On the other hand, it is aware that any defense of either Tokyo or Manila would jeopardize its ties with Beijing which are by far Washington's most important relationship with any Asia-Pacific country at the moment.

Given the rise in nationalism, the military-build up and the aggressive rhetoric, could 21st century Asia be heading the way of 20th century Europe?

I doubt that 2014 would be a repeat of 1914 - the year marking the outbreak of World War I - as there are a series of automatic stabilizers in place. Beyond the aggressive rhetoric over territorial disputes, there are strong economic and trade relations being built up between China and its Asian neighbors.

China is being "socialized" into a growing web of regional forums, and although institutions such as the East Asia Summit are still in their infancy, they still provide the possibility of restraining its members from taking erratic measures that would further increase tensions.

Finally, there is also an automatic stabilizer in terms of the American role as a deterrent to all parties involved, as explained earlier. So, although it is possible that a mishap may trigger a major confrontation in the region, the probability of this actually happening remains low, for now.

Dr. William Choong, is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.