Out of the box

Map of South China Sea

PorLander Michel 

Abogado – Internacionalista / Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara

LLM en Derecho Internacional / Universidad de Leiden

Correo electrónico: lmichel@miderainternational.co

Continued expansion of islands under Chinese control in the Spratlys reflects its foreign policy which follows and out-of-the-box approach in the sense that they seem to have understood that playing by the rules of the status quo is not in their best interest whereby strategies which are outside of the status quo best favor their national interests.

Indeed, to respect the rules of the international system would have restricted their economic, technological and military expansion which makes sense for the economic and technological status quo was created to favor certain key countries over others. Adopting an alternative industrialization strategy has been the means whereby certain nations have industrialized (Japan and the Republic of Korea are examples of this). China’s economic policy has been a reflection of this (one need only study the industrial, technological and economic policies from the time of Deng Xiao Ping till today).  Thus China, (hereinafter PRC) adopts and out-of-the-box strategy all areas as a means to further its national interests. As part of this strategy it seeks to negotiate on its own terms, in so much as possible and aims to not be tied down to the International System save when and where it so chooses. The gradual assertiveness it has demonstrated over the past twenty years is a reflection of its increased confidence in adopting and executing out-of-the-box strategies which promote its long term strategic in an ever increasing amount of areas.

The recent, and continued, expansion of the PRC presence and the size of the islands it claims in the Spratly Islands, via dredging, is a perfect example of this. China seeks to ensure what it considers as its vital security zone or the nine-dashed line (as it refers to it) and employs tactics and methods which will ensure territorial and natural resource control as well as force projection. Dredging is, in no way, forbidden by international law whereby China by possessing and expanding the size of different Spratly Islands ensures control over the surrounding areas of the Islands (the Economic Exclusive Zone) as well as the capacity to project force (it is constructing a runway on one of the Islands being dredged).

Meanwhile, the other nations which have claims to the Spratly Islands (Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam) do not present a united front and lack the means to limit or stop the PRC from exerting its will. They know that, short of the use of force, there is no means to stop PRC claims to the Spratly Islands as they lack the clout or see it in their best interest to not openly confront China, owing to economic interests, they are left to either seethe and present recourse via International Legal Bodies, as is the case of the Philippines, or request and allow a renewed American presence on their territory and increased or enhanced, bilateral defense cooperation agreements this without disregard to the fact that many, but not all, of the islands claimed by the different nations have small military outposts on them.

The PRC has thus increased its geopolitical sphere of influence without having to enter in any significant negotiation or conflict with any other nation in South East Asia. The PRC will likely continue to negotiate with individual states to show good faith, whilst at the same time expanding its territorial claims –i.e. expanding islands to allow for permanent outposts- thus,  the PRC will slowly, and in practice, expand its territorial hold on the vital trade route  that passes through the area it controls of the Spratlys as well as beginning to exploit the natural resources in the areas of its control. It is already enforcing its law in the Spratlys with fisherman required to obtain a license or permit to fish in the areas it controls.

The PRC is likely to apply its out-of-the-box strategy until such time as it feels confident enough in its ability to impose its will, if needed, although negotiation and out-of-the-box strategies will likely be those it most favors as it does not wish, nor desire, to risk a conflict which would draw in the United States. The expansion of PRC controlled islands in the Spratlys and the constructing of an airfield are all clear signals that the PRC does not plan to withdraw its claims and, on the contrary, will exert and enforce control over these islands with the ability, should it so choose, to project its force and even go so far as to impose its will although its main geopolitical interest appears to be the natural resources which lie in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Spratly Islands and not limiting the free flow of goods.

Conflict although possible is highly unlikely as no single nation in the region can stand to China as of today and the United States is unlikely to risk any conflict unless it feels that its economic interests are directly threatened (or an ally is attacked) although a conflict could happen should the United States feel that it is required to flex its muscle for the benefit of its allies in the region and to put a halt to China’s aspirations however this would be counterproductive and, at best, a short-term success.

The continued assertiveness of the PRC in both the Spratly and as regards its other territorial claims as well as the recent creation of an air exclusion zone are benefitting, indirectly, both the US and Japanese foreign policy and the defense industries as, especially Japan, has increased its ties, both political and militarily, with all nations of South East Asia which are parties to the Spratly territorial dispute and especially both Vietnam and the Philippines who see Japan as a, partial, counter balance to the PRC.

There is no foreseeable significant conflict in the short term although there will likely be small incidents, with likely loss of life, in the Spratly Islands. Should the PRC seek to close trade routes the United States and, possibly, Japan will project their force to reopen trade routes. The PRC is unlikely to try this until at least the middle of the next decade when it will have consolidated its forces and have the capacity to project its forces and adequately deny US forces entry into the South China Sea region.

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