Home / Articles / The South China Sea through the Eyes of China’s Military
East and South China Seas
Editor’s Note: This article has a dual structure: an overview of the situation in the South China Sea followed by translations of Chinese materials related to this issue.
Author’s note: The translation is verbatim and not edited into literary-grade English. This was done in the belief that the unpolished language of these translations successfully conveys the spirit and meaning of the original. Translation done by Yang Tang, Scholar Intern, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
America’s prolonged involvement in armed conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan has obscured an important truth: the most consequential strategic confrontation on the planet has been building, not in Iraq and Syria, but in Southeast Asia where the U.S. and China are locked in a contest over the future of the South China Sea – and ultimately the rest of the region.
In stark and oversimplified terms, the issue is whether China will succeed in seizing control over a large semi-enclosed sea bordered by five Southeast Asian states plus Taiwan and China. The busiest and most important sea lanes in the world are found in that sea. It is also a rich ocean fishery that sits over potential seabed oil and gas reserves – how substantial they are remains an open question. What is not in question is that effective control over the South China Sea would allow China to credibly threaten the commercial lifelines that sustain the economies of both the Republic of Korea and Japan. The potential for conflict comes from China’s determination to assert sovereign possession and control at the expense of other claimants (Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines) and those maritime nations that view the South China Sea as “high seas” and the sea lanes as a global commons. The most potent obstacle to China’s ambitions is the American Navy operating under the U.S. Pacific Command. But the presence of U.S. naval combatants has not deterred China thus far. Over the last three decades, Beijing has undertaken a huge program to build and deploy modern and increasingly capable maritime military forces. The accompanying message to Washington is that the time has come for the U.S. military to withdraw from China’s backyard. China’s dramatic “island-building” campaign is a key element in Chinese strategy. In the process, China has seized a number of atolls and semi-submerged reefs, and through massive dredging operations, it has created permanent sites for ports, airfields, and barracks.’
In one sense, it is surprising that the South China Sea has only become a serious issue in the last few years. The “nine-dash line” that circumscribes the South China Sea on Chinese official maps ’ actually predates the People’s Republic and was the invention of its predecessor, the Nationalist or Kuomintang regime. But for several decades, this putative boundary was shrouded in obscurity, ambiguity, and inattention. Chinese officials seldom mentioned it, and during the few occasions when the government was asked to clarify its meaning (and precise demarcation), there was no coherent response. The reasons for this lack of clarity were, in fact, clear enough. Deng Xiaoping, China’s post-Mao leader, liked to quote a traditional Chinese saying that translates: “Bide your time and conceal your capabilities until you are ready to act.” In Beijing’s mind, the nine-dash line marked a rightful international boundary, but for most of the period since it was first drawn, China lacked the military capability to enforce it. So Beijing chose to bide its time until that capability had been created. By the end of the first decade of this century (ca. 2008-10), China judged that its long wait was over – sustained investments in China’s capacity to project military power into its “near seas” had borne fruit. Beijing launched its first aircraft carrier in 2015, but more importantly, it had built and deployed advanced submarines, fighter aircraft, missile systems, and surveillance capabilities – supported by a number of surface warships or heavily armed “maritime enforcement” vessels. Together with the creation of a number (eight at last count) of actual or potential military outposts on newly built “islands,” these deployments constitute a coordinated military strategy to establish Chinese sovereign control. These “facts on the water” have been accompanied by numerous official statements asserting China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping has publicly described the sea as Chinese territory “since ancient times.”
President Xi notwithstanding, China’s assertions of historical and legal possession of the South China Sea are entirely mythical. China has no plausible case for ownership of the South China Sea under international law – a fact that was conclusively determined in the recent decision by the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Nevertheless, Beijing has continued to publicly insist on its claim – and has continued to act accordingly.
The extraordinary disconnect between China’s stated position on the one hand and the legal and historical merits on the other raises an important question. Is China’s publicly stated position an authentic expression of the views of the Chinese leadership or is there an element of public posturing designed to give China leverage in some future negotiation over the ultimate status of the South China Sea? The question is a live one because American diplomats and scholars still report conversations with their Chinese counterparts suggesting that Beijing’s real position is softer than its public pronouncements. The question then becomes what are the views of those who really count when it comes to China’s security/defense policy – i.e., the leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Communist Party of China (CCP)? One important window into the former (and by implication, the latter) is what PLA analysts are saying to their own people. This is revealed in untranslated articles in Chinese military journals intended for a PLA audience.
A great deal of analysis and commentary from official Chinese sources on international affairs are available online. Some of it is translated into English and intended for an American or other foreign audience, but much of it is untranslated and intended for a limited domestic audience or for internal government use. With tensions rising in the South China Sea and with U.S. and Chinese maritime forces operating in ever closer proximity, it is important to understand how these developments are being portrayed to a domestic, particularly military, readership within China.
With this requirement in mind, we have translated articles from three Chinese military publications: The Liberation Army Daily, China National Defense News, and China Military Online. These constitute only a tiny sampling of similar material, but they are representative of that larger body of work. They provide important insights into the assumptions and perceptions of Chinese officials – civilian and military – when it comes to the increasingly fraught South China Sea.
Translations of Chinese Text
Below you will find texts originally written in Chinese that have been translated into English.
Recently, some related or unrelated countries have displayed their existences in different forms on the South China Sea issue. Most importantly, those countries bring China new challenges. From foreign media’s perspective, it is more effective for China to fight back in actions instead of words.
Japan will use “foreign aid” to pressure China
Japan doesn’t belong to the region of the South China Sea, but recently, it has meddled with the affairs frequently. For example, Japan discussed maritime security issues and made a statement at the G7 meeting. Analysts believe that with the adoption of this statement, Japan has the tendency to strongly pull other Member States of G7 for supporting its own policy, and even put pressure on China.
Vietnam makes balance on the policy of “both sides”
Analysts believe that the current Sino-Vietnamese relation is getting warmer, but it still has latent instability. Therefore, China needs to make full preparations. According to some analysts, they believe that the Vietnamese’s attitude toward China has two sides. On the one hand, Vietnamese would like to talk about tradition and friendship instead of completely deadlock-Vietnam relations. On the other hand, it has large-scale importation of foreign submarines, early warning aircraft, anti-submarine aircraft, and other weapons. It is obvious that the military is trying to shorten the gap for confrontation with China in the South China Sea.
Some experts point out that Vietnamese is using the strategy to play balance between the United States and Russia. In order to pull the involvement of the US in the South China Sea for counterbalancing China, Vietnam procures arms from the United States. Meanwhile, it draws Russia for counterbalancing the US. Therefore, the relation between China and Vietnam is currently in a period of relative calm. However, China must be prepared because nobody will secure Vietnam’s action in the future.
Philippines relies on another’s power to frighten others
Another troublemaker over the South China Sea, the Philippines, is frequently provoking China by having the “mouth battle.” According to the analysis, the Philippines will resume restoration and reconstruction activities in the disputed area of the South China Sea. In fact, it suspended these activities because of the undesirable impacts against China’s arbitration. Therefore, the Philippines have reached their purpose by gaining political support from the US and using provocative words towards China brazenly.
China’s Construction over the South China Sea is legitimate
When Hong Lei, the spokesman of Foreign Ministry held a regular press conference, he reiterated main goals for building and maintaining facilities of the Nansha Islands. The targets include improving the relevant function of reefs and personnel’s working and living conditions. In addition, it is significant for China take international responsibilities and obligations to execute search and rescue at sea, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine research, meteorological observations, environmental protection, safety of navigation, and fisheries service’s. The type of construction should be regarded as a matter within China’s sovereignty which is fair, reasonable, and legitimate. There is no doubt that it does not affect any country, thus China hopes relevant parties can treat the issue properly.
On May 30, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave a speech titled “The United States and the Asia-Pacific Security Challenges” on the 14th Shangri-La Dialogue conference. Based on his speech, it stressed that the US is committed to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific, while it has high-profile sound in the South China Sea; the US is eager to develop the constructive Sino-US relation, while it likes to make irresponsible remarks on China. Carter’s tangle reflects a deep paradox which stands for following the old routine of “zero thinking” of the US, showing muscle, and shielding allies. Thus, the fact is that it is failing in achieving the goal of maintaining stability in the region. During these past few years, many hot and controversial issues have been raised up under the US implementation of rebalancing Asia-Pacific and it is not accidental.
(Three key points)
A. When dealing with the South China Sea issue, it is useless for the United States to strengthen its system of alliance. Instead, it will only complicate the issue.
B. China welcomes the United States to play a constructive role in the Asia-Pacific. From Chinese perspective, it hopes the US will fully respect and accommodate the major interests and legitimate concerns of the countries in the region.
C. Building a positive interaction between China and the US is vital for containing regional security, and the new relationship should start from the region of Asia-Pacific.
Recently, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force and Philippine Navy held joint naval exercises in the South China Sea. Although the exercises were called the “disaster relief training” in the name of humanitarian aid and the size of participating troops was not large, it could not cover up Japan’s intentions in the South China Sea. In the last few years, Japan has deliberately strengthened security cooperation with the Philippines, trying to further expand its involvement as the fulcrum of the intensity of the South China Sea affairs. Therefore, the small-scale military exercises conveyed an important signal: Japan is ready to intervene in the South China Sea issue.
“Big attempts” behind the “Little exercises”
A. To let P-3C anti-submarine patrol aircraft firstly fly into the airspace of the South China Sea by taking advantage of the chance of exercise.
B. To indicate that the Japan-Philippines bilateral military interaction has taken a substantial step.
C. To test Chinese reaction to other countries’ involvements in the South China Sea affairs.
Small role can also lead to a big war
A. Firstly, Japan has regarded the Philippines as an entry point to intervene in the South China Sea issue. Japan promises to provide assistants on economics, diplomacy, defense, and even on public opinion to the Philippines. In addition, Japan takes advantages of the Philippines’s fear to China, continuously demonstrating that Japan would like to play a balancer over the issue of the South China Sea.
B. Secondly, the following policy of Japan will offer strong military supports to Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia which are the countries having disputes on reefs and sea with China in the South China Sea. In addition, it will use Japan – ASEAN meeting mechanism effectively, drawing and encouraging ASEAN countries to come together. Under such circumstance, the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries will show more active attitudes towards the South China Sea issue.
It is not difficult to find Japanese strategy in the South China Sea issue from a long term. The strategy is that using the existing “small triangle” coalition forces (Japan-US-Australia; Japan-US-Philippines) as the backbone of the South China Sea and drawing relevant countries to create the Asian version of NATO for the purpose of containing China.
Recently, US officials have claimed that in order to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US military is considering using aircraft and ships to take radical action against the expansion of the Nansha Islands which are built by China. The actions include commanding naval reconnaissance aircraft to fly over the islands, and sending warships to 12 sea miles away from the waters within the reefs. It is said that the plan was awaiting approval from White House.
The people who have some basic understandings about the situation in the South China Sea will undoubtedly feel inexplicable “surprise” when they see this news. Who has given the US confidence and courage to meddle China’s normal activities within its sovereignty? The United States appears to be so “sublime,” standing on the moral high ground by declaring freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. However, when Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries started “massive construction projects” on the island and reefs which were stolen from the South China Sea, the US chose to ignore it. Obviously, the United States has double standards towards the issue of China and the South China Sea.
This reminds the public of other acts taken by the United States. The US denounces other countries’ network theft, while it uses “PRISM” to control countries including its allies. The US judges other countries’ human rights situations, while it neglects its domestic racial discrimination. There is no doubt that the US cannot measure fair and justice by using double standards, especially over the construction of the reefs on South China Sea. Instead, it shows its selfish and capricious hegemony. For example, some US forces are trying to contain China under a cold war mentality. As a great and powerful nation, such acts conducted by the United States are outdated and detrimental to its own image.
Regarding to the construction of Nansha Islands, it is an entire reasonable and lawful action within Chinese sovereignty. Since China’s construction is not only referring to “nine-dotted line,” but also stationing on Chinese reefs. Therefore, it is completely wrong to say that the ultimate target for the Chinese military is to build reefs is to expand its military power. From Chinese perspective, the government has clearly announced that the goal for expanding operations of reefs is keeping peace. The spokesman of Chinese Foreign Ministry has pointed out that “one of the purposes for China to station in one part of the reef-building is to better fulfill China’s search, rescue, and security of sailing in the South China Sea. In addition, China has international responsibilities and obligations of safety, marine scientific research, and other aspects of commitment.”
In fact, when it comes to territorial disputes, China is always upholding constructive positions. China has already negotiated and settled the border issue with twelve countries which have a common land border with China. Based on the South China Sea issue, although there are some vexatious countries, China always advocates developing negotiated settlement of disputes through dialogue, showing enough patience and sincerity. China’s patience and sincerity should be regarded as following the consciousness of “community of destiny,” pursuing cooperative diplomacy with neighboring countries, and playing a responsible role for keeping steady of international and regional environment.
For a long time, it seems that the US has developed a “militaristic” habit through circumstances in Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Libya. The results of American military intervention are seen globally: frequent terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, increased sectarian conflicts in Iraq, and constant tribal clashes in Libya. In the South China Sea, the United States also shows off its military force and sends military aircraft and warships to China repeatedly for implementing close surveillance. After the collision of two military aircraft between both countries in 2001, the US still supported some vexatious countries instead of repenting its military actions. Nowadays, the United States is threatening to intervene China’s construction of islands and reefs through sending military aircraft and warships to the South China Sea. No one can deny that all of these hegemonic behaviors have demonstrated the continuation of the cold war mentality. The United States’ unwarranted interferences in China’s sovereignty led to tensions in the South China Sea again and again. China is justified in continuing work on reefs, while the United States seeks only to swagger in front of the other’s door. Therefore, when US officials accuse China of exacerbating tensions in the South China Sea, they may have to ask themselves who is exactly creating tensions in the region?
China has never been a militant nation, but it doesn’t show fear to war when it comes. It is impossible for the US, implementing saber-rattling, to force China to give up its legitimate rights. Instead, it will further arouse Chinese strong determination on safeguarding their legitimate rights and interests. President Xi has seriously claimed that: “Any foreign countries don’t expect that we will take our core interests to do business. Furthermore, we will not swallow the bitter pill which is harmful to our sovereignty, security and development interests.”
As the largest developing country and the largest developed country in the world, China will inevitably have differences and disagreements with the United States. However, cooperation should be regarded as the mainstream of building bilateral relations. The United States should pay attention to the overall situation of bilateral military relations and inject “positive energy” on remaining stability of global and regional areas. In order to develop military relations with other countries, the United States has to effectively abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and the bad habit on using military for provocation.
Major Themes in the Chinese Texts
A first reaction from reading these military commentaries is that there is little here that is genuinely surprising or novel. What the authors are saying to their own people tracks with what defense commentators have been saying to external audiences. Nevertheless, a careful reading is revealing. What emerges is a contrasting portrayal of China and the U.S. that is starkly Manichean – both strategically and morally. Some of the key points are:
China’s sovereignty encompassing the maritime regions within the “nine-dash line” is assumed and unquestioned. ’Its activities within that space, notably the construction of artificial islands with infrastructure to house personnel, berth ships, and deploy aircraft, is entirely benign. The purpose of all this activity is to “better fulfill China’s search, rescue, and security” responsibilities including its obligations regarding “safety, marine scientific research and other commitments.” The environmental impacts of these activities go unnoted.
China’s intentions are “constructive” and morally admirable. Where territorial disputes exist, advocates negotiated settlement “through dialogue showing patience and sincerity” – as evidenced by China’s record of settling land borders with 12 countries through [bilateral] negotiations. China’s “responsible role” in the region reflects its aspiration to build a regional “community of common destiny.” By clear implication, this community is not just a political or economic construct, it is a moral one.
By contrast, the U.S. approach to the region and the South China Sea is morally defective – hegemonic, selfish, militaristic, and provocative. America’s “Cold War mentality” has created and stoked tensions that otherwise might not exist. U.S. “saber-rattling” is intended to intimidate China, but these efforts will fail. “China has never been a militant nation, but it doesn’t show fear . . . [U.S. actions] will further arouse China’s strong determination to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests.” The moral critique goes on to include U.S. hypocrisy, racism, and retrograde “Cold War mentality.” It is America’s responsibility to reform its behavior and act in a “positive” manner worthy of a “great and powerful nation.”
The authors note the presence of certain “vexatious countries” that assert territorial claims in conflict with China’s rightful sovereignty in the South China Sea. At no point is there any suggestion that the views of such countries should be taken seriously. This contrasts with work by analysts in academic settings (Shanghai International Studies University and Xiamen University) as well as the Foreign Language Institute of the PLA. In a selection of Chinese language articles focused on Malaysia, the authors are careful, but do suggest that an understanding of Malaysia’s interests and concerns can help guide a successful Chinese policy toward that country.