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Panel: China Establishing a ‘Grey Zone of Coercion’ in South China Sea

A naval soldier of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China's first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

A naval soldier of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) views through a pair of binoculars onboard China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning as it visits a military harbour on the South China Sea. Xinhua Photo

The coral reefs on which China is building airstrips are “not just a bunch of rocks, ”but the transit point for about half of the world’s maritime containerized cargo,” Michael Green, vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Monday.

Speaking as part of a panel discussion on China’s growing maritime influence at the Washington, D.C., think-tank, he added those reclamation projects allow Beijing to “maintain a constant presence” with a growing number of aircraft and ships that “you have to deal with . . . in U.S. planning and [are] intimidating smaller states,” such as the Philippines and Vietnam.

Like Russia in Ukraine and with its neighbors and Iran in the Middle East, China was establishing “a gray zone of coercion,” Green added, designed to “shake the credibility of the U.S. commitment” to the Pacific among its allies and partners.

The Chinese now “are in the assessment phase” of what the transit of the U.S. guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG-82) in the Spratlys in the South China Sea means, particularly in light of the United States’ signaling it intends to conduct freedom of navigation operations there twice a quarter, Christopher Johnson, Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS, said.

A map of China's shifting definition of the so-called Nine-Dash Line. US State Dept. Image

A map of China’s shifting definition of its claims in the South China Sea. US State Dept. Image

Green pointed out that the Chinese routinely conduct such operations, including Alaskan waters in the transit.

Lassen’s transit through waters claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam “was absolutely necessary,” but caused “so much angst” among American allies and partners. The United States does not recognize few of the three countries’ claims to the Spratlys.

Johnson said he was in the region at the time of the transit and he was being asked “is there steps two through nine” afterwards? “What are the U.S. goals?” was the follow-up question. For the United States, it is a matter now of “how do we signal them [China, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as Australia, Japan and Korea] we are still here and capable.”

While the land reclamation projects were surprising, Johnson said they were part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s development of “a coherent maritime strategy,” a strategy beyond territorial defense to now include open-sea operations on its periphery.

In the strategy is a position “to safeguard the security of China’s overseas interests. . . . This is new,” he said.

“We must be prepared for some level of tension,” short of war, Green said, adding that military-to-military relations between China and the United States are improving.

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015.

Airstrip construction on the Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea is pictured in this April 2, 2015.

Johnson noted the 15-year buildup in China’s maritime and air forces with its doubling of the defense budget every five years has covered everything from aircraft carriers, submarines, a large coast guard to electronic warfare and improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

But there are still gaps in these efforts.

Johnson cited the Chinese military’s own recognition of its weakness in “conducting truly integrated joint operations” as it continues to use tightly scripted exercises.

All branches of the People’s Liberation Army are “limited by the PLA’s standing as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party.”

The military’s command structure remains outdated, still oriented against Russia and maintaining internal stability.

Green said that more money should be set aside to help build maritime awareness, defense and patrol capacity and organization of armed forces among allies such as the Philippines and partners such as Vietnam. In that area Japan and Australia, strong U.S. allies, can help.

The Transpacific Partnership can be of great assistance to show “countries [they] don’t just have to rely on China for growth.”

  • sferrin

    “Peaceful Rise”.

  • muzzleloader

    These transits need to become regular routine events. It is the main thing that the US can do to establish to the Chicoms that the south china sea belongs to everyone.

  • Kenneth Ng Kwan Chung

    Taiwan has the same claims as China over the South China Sea. They have also said that they will not recognise the judgement of the internal tribunal at the Hague. The ownership issue is a complex one and realistically difficult to settle and even dialogue may not produce a end result.
    China is the largest economy in the region and will be as large as the US in another 5 to 10 years. All the regional countries will have to depend on China for trade and China will be among their top one or two trading partners. If the regional countries do not ride the economic wave with China they will lose out. The US will not be as great an engine of growth as the commentary thinks.
    Lastly, I would like to correct the bias that all this assertiveness is because China has a Communist government. That is further for the truth. No Chinese leader Communist or Democratic will ever give away their sovereignty claims to the SCS. These claims were made by the Nationalist government and now by the Communist government and I forsee any future government will maintain the same claims.

    • publius_maximus_III

      These are not “land reclamation projects” by the PRC. They are aggressive “empire extension projects” — at least for anyone who can read a map. The nearest countries to these islands with coastlines along the South China Sea are (in order of proximity): Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

      Using the Spratley Islands as home plate, China and Taiwan are way out in right and left field, respectively. The others listed above are all in the infield.

      Just because a body of water is named after a country doesn’t mean everything in it belongs to them — just ask the Persians. But the Dragon is breathing fire now, and daring anyone to cross its path. Instead of operating under international law, the PRC has chosen to follow the “Might is Right” principle. A new colonial era is born.

  • Hugh

    The 9 dash line dates from 1947 when China had a Nationalist government, hence mainland and Taiwan claims. Long before that there was a 3 nm territorial limit, but this was extended to 12 nm in 1982 at which time the 200 nm eez for each country with shoreline was Internationally recognised, and this can be extended out to the continental shelf. Where one country’s area would overlap with another’s, then the mid point applies. Islands can only be claimed where they naturally remain above high tide. These 1982 agreements, endorsed by China, should have nullified much of the 9 dash line which was a Chinese domestic interpretation and not an international agreement.

  • Michael Nunez

    Coercion is one of the Founding Principals of the CCP . All One has to do is Look at the History of The Totalitarian Government . You have to lie To Yourself to believe….. .

  • John B. Morgen

    These so-called islands or reefs are becoming nothing than trip-wires for possible naval conflicts in the near future, if we continue allowed China to complete its mission of taking over these so-called territories….We [must] not recognized these so-called new territories being apart of China. The South China Sea must remain open and free for maritime [Trade] for everyone….

  • Jim Valle

    Just now we are obsessing over the impact of China’s claims concerning Right of Passage but what we really ought to be thinking about is the impact of China’s claims when the time comes to drill for oil and/or collect other resources from the seabed. It is hard to imagine that China would willingly obstruct free passage of commercial traffic when they are so dependent on trade themselves. One the other hand, who wouldn’t want to sequester all the lucrative seabed resources for themselves? The answer to this problem would be to somehow force or persuade China to accept the division of the seabed along the lines established in the North Sea where several European countries extract oil from well established areas created by extending their national boundaries outwards to a mid point line. This is legal, orderly and generally fair to all concerned parties.

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  • Joe Huang

    I wish everybody here would just do a reality check first before beating the war drums. Has China ever impeded transit through the South China Seas by anyone? Does anyone not see the contradiction between saying that 40% of the sea traffic of the world transits the South China Sea, but not a single incident has been cited of a non-Chinese freighter being blocked by China? Sure, there’ve been fishing incidents, but as much of other countries’ detaining Chinese fishermen than the other way around. So, what is it? That unilateral claims by other countries are accepted at face value, but those by China are not? Bear in mind that the US _says_ that it takes no stand on the various countries’ claims.

    As far as unilaterally claiming uninhabited islands, who were the first to do that anway? Well, it started with the British and French colonialists, and they’ve only stopped because they got kicked out of Vietnam, Malaysia (formerly Sarawak, etc.). So now their successor states have picked up the habit, with Vietnam occupying 22 of the islets and Philippines 8 of them. Why is that okay, but when China starts doing the same (it’s also occupied about 8), it raises a big red flag? It’s all a land/sea grab as far as I can see. Has anyone noticed that both Vietnam and Philippines claim all of the so-called Spratly Islands (Nansha Jundao)? Vietnam also claims all of the so-called Paracels (Xisha Jundao), even though most of these islands are closer to Hainan than to Vietnam? So much for being “objective” or “fair”.

    Those Americans who cite the UNCLOS as if it were a holy book should be ashamed of yourselves, because the US is one of the few countries that has not ratified it, while China has! And you know why? Because the US wants unfettered access to other people’s EEZ and was the most vociferous opponent when Peru first brought up the idea of a 200-mile EEZ to protect their fishing grounds. So, to now say that everyone follows the UNCLOS is a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”.

    The Chinese claim to the Nansha Jundao (Spratly Islands) is actually very similar to the US claim to its oceanic possessions in the Pacific, i.e., we got there first. Otherwise, if you go by geographical distance from the nearest shore, the US should cede everything west of the International Date Line to Japan, the Philippines, etc. The Chinese claim is the same, regardless whether it’s the PRC or ROC (Taiwan), and Taiwan’s continued occupation of Taiping Dao (AKA Itu Aba), the biggest island, since the 1950’s attests to that fact of prior occupation and control.

    I’m also amused by all the US protectors of the Southeast Asians continuing to use the English names given to these islands by British colonialists in the 19th Century. Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoals, right smack in the midst of a sea surrounded by nearly 2 billion Asians? Sounds really condescending to me.
    Just so you know, I’m not being rhetorical, because I’ve always known the islands by their Chinese names that I learned in grade school in Hong Kong in the mid-1950’s, which might also tell you something why most Chinese don’t see what
    China has been doing as expansionism, but making right what they’ve always
    thought was theirs all along. From the 1930’s to the 1970’s, China could only
    protest when other countries unilaterally declared ownership of this or that island, but now they’re finally able to do the same.

    So, what do I think is the way forward? Ideally, all the countries can recognize each other’s position and arrive at a mutually-agreeable compromise. Before the anti-China crowd rolls their eyes too much, let me first say that China has been able to resolve its border disputes with Russia, Nepal, and Burma, but it’s got to be seen as equitable. At present, Vietnam and Philippines are still staking out their maximal claims and refusing to accept that China has any claim at all. Heck, t two countries can’t even resolve their overlapping claims between themselves!

    What do I think would most likely happen? Probably nothing – it would just be a stalemate, with each country holding onto what it has occupied, trading angry words but not risking a shooting war. The biggest danger to me is how provocative will the US chose to be? All this in-your-face sailing within a kilometer of an islet might lead to a violent reaction that could spiral out of control. Truth be told, I don’t think the US gives a hoot about the welfare of the Southeast countries or free transit through the South China Seas (which has always and continues to exist), but just wants to show China who’s the top dog in this “fight”. But I wonder – with Syria, ISIS, Russia, etc., going on, is it really wise for the US to stir up another fight ?