Tensions Grow but not out of Control: Land Reclamation and Geopolitical Dynamics in the Southeast China Sea

Posted By September 3, 2015 No Comments

This article is Part 2 of the Mackenzie Institute’s China Series.

China’s massive island-building activity in the disputed South China Sea has been changing the regional geopolitical environment, pitting Beijing against Washington which insists on freedom of navigation and U.S. strategic interests, as well as several Southeast Asia nations which lay overlapping claims to the contested areas.

ASEAN Expresses Concerns Over China’s Reclamation

China’s land reclamation, despite Beijing’s persistent objection, took centre stage at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations(ASEAN) ministerial meeting and security forum held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia early August. The annual gathering involved the 10 ASEAN members and other Asia-Pacific countries including China, Japan and the U.S.

The ASEAN meetings highlighted a deepening rift between China and its once-friendly neighbours over sovereignty disputes. Southeast Asian leaders voiced anxieties over Beijing’s controversial island-expansion and rising tensions in the areas. Divisions over how to deal with China separated ASEAN members notably when preparing the joint communique. Vietnam and the Philippines were pushing for a stronger language against China’s activities. Cambodia and Laos were lining up with Beijing in an attempt to lower the tone of the wording in the final statement.[1]

Wrangling over control of disputed islands in the South China Sea has existed for decades. China claims the most of disputed waters, which overlap the areas the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan consider as their territory. Since late 2013 China has stepped up reclamation efforts building more artificial islands in the areas. Other claimants, mainly Vietnam and the Philippines, have also built infrastructure in the contested waters over the years.

ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, former Vietnamese diplomat, complained that China has promised substantive negotiations on a “code of conduct(COC)” with ASEAN governing behaviour in the region, but there is a gap between Beijing’s pledge and the situation on the ground. “We are calling for the termination of such activities, which are of concern to us, and eroding trust and confidence among the parties, and complicating the very process of negotiating” the COC, said the head of the regional bloc.[2] His speech underscored ASEAN members’ disappointment and grievance over Beijing’s stance.

Other ASEAN nation leaders joined the chorus of angst over China’s activities. Malaysia, a claimant with a lower profile approach, broke with usual reticence. Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said ASEAN ministers called for more self-restraint in handling the disputes, adding the group is exploring the “possibility of putting in place preventive measures” to ensure disagreements among claimants would not flare into a regional conflict.[3]

The Philippines, a hardliner on China’s island-expansion, looked to the U.S. for engagement. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said that Manila “fully supports and will proactively promote the call of the United States on the ‘three halts’ — a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions.”[4] Some non-claimant countries such as Indonesia and Singapore also became more vocal about anxieties over maritime disputes.

At the end of the meetings ASEAN members struggled to work out a compromised communique expressing serious concerns but not mentioning China by name. The report called for a binding code of conduct in the disputed waters which ASEAN has talked about without result over a decade. For the first time ever ASEAN mentioned divergences among members in this major statement.[5] Southeast Asia is home to 600 million people with a combined GDP of $2.6 trillion in 2014, making it the seventh largest economy in the world.

U.S. Takes on China over Freedom of Navigation

Competition of sovereignty is in essence a U.S.-China issue that is of importance to regional geopolitics, despite Beijing’s insistence on having direct negotiation with concerned claimant nations. ASEAN meetings underlined the difference between the U.S. and China over such thorny issues as legality of Beijing’s island-building program and freedom of navigation in international waters.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended Beijing’s massive island-building projects, saying China has the right to do so and the activities are in its territory. “It’s not a constructive move to exercise double standards on the issue,” Mr. Wang said, adding China and ASEAN are capable enough to work together to maintain the peace and stability in the region.[6]

However, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took on China, urging Beijing to stop islands-building and construction in the disputed waters. “What’s really needed though is an agreement to stop not just the reclamation but the large-scale construction and militarization,” said Mr. Kerry. But China rejected the U.S. accusation, disputing the Washington-proposed halt on land reclamation, construction, and aggressive actions in the disputed areas.[7]

The U.S. is not a party to the regional issue but stresses a peaceful resolution of the conflict and freedom of navigation in the region. At the ASEAN meeting Mr. Kerry reiterated “the United States will not accept restrictions on freedom of navigation and overflight, or other lawful uses of the sea.”[8] The Chinese foreign minister echoed that argument. “China also has a stake in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” said Beijing’s top diplomat in a statement, adding the situation was “stable” and there was “no possibility of major conflicts.”[9] “Up to now, there has not been a single case in which freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is impeded,” Mr. Wang argued.[10]

Given the increased pressure, China has partly softened its position. In mid-June Beijing announced it’s putting a halt to island-building projects. At the ASEAN meetings the Chinese foreign minister reiterated Beijing’s decision to stop land reclamation, urging other nations to speed up talks on how claimants should conduct themselves in the disputed waters.[11] China’s announcement, however, was met with skepticism from U.S. diplomats attending ASEAN meetings. The U.S. downplayed Beijing’s decision, saying it would be difficult to verify if the halt was permanent or temporary.[12]

The Pentagon referred to U.S. officials’ skepticism in a report released on August 20, saying China has considerably increased reclamation of landmass among a string of artificial islands in the areas recently, up nearly 50 percent in one month.[13] Satellite images show China has built a large airstrip on one artificial island, raising concerns over Beijing’s attempt to build military infrastructure and set up an air-defence identification zone(ADIZ) in the region. China has enforced an ADIZ in the East China Sea since late 2013.

The softening of Beijing’s position on land reclamation comes months before a high-profile trip to the U.S. by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September. The timing of China’s announcement of stopping island-expansion is believed to be a posture to create an atmosphere for the Chinese leader’s looming visit as well as to soothe China’s unsettled neighbours. It’s also no coincidence that the Pentagon chose this moment to release the report on the issue. The South China Sea dispute, along with cyber security, monetary policy and world economic uncertainty, could foreshadow a potentially difficult mission for both the Chinese President and his American counterpart during their talks in Washington.[14]

China has given top priority to its ties with the U.S. but in a more pragmatic geopolitical context. As Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University said in a commentary, “there has been a lack of trust between China and the U.S. since 1989.” “Yet interests will constitute the cornerstone of the relationships,” Mr. Yan noted. “A complex web of interests bind the two countries together, neither as friends nor as enemies.”[15]

China’s Land Reclamation Dwarfs Rival Neighbours

Contest for land reclamation splits up claimants, with China against several ASEAN countries which are backed by the United States. China delineates its claims of sovereignty through what’s called the nine-dash line, or U-shape line. This demarcation line was advanced in the 1940s by the then Chinese government. China is the last country to partake in land reclamation, but its efforts have unprecedentedly outpaced works by five other rival claimants on the scale, speed and nature.

Over the past 18 months China has reclaimed 1,200 hectares(3,000 acres) of land, compared with merely 40 hectares(100 acres) reclaimed by China’s neighbours combined in the last 45 years.[16] The U.S. had virtually no response to previous island-building by other countries, but has vigorously opposed China’s activities. Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines all have stationed military forces on at least some of their islands. But only China has possessed enough modern military vessels and the projectile capabilities to protect its claims.

Former Chinese Ambassador to France Wu Jianmin offered his thoughts on land reclamation. “In the past China was unable to exercise sovereignty due to our limited capabilities, but now we should do it thanks to our strengthened power,” the retired diplomat said at a media debate last summer. “On the other hand I think we should calmly take the bilateral relations as a whole into full account while tackling disputes, not just over sovereignty issue.”[17]

A noted Chinese media expert explained the diplomatic challenge facing Beijing. Dr. Qiu Zhenhai, Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV host, said the foremost challenge facing China is sovereignty claims. He said, “the major issue is how to handle the follow-ups after taking action.” The host mentioned the growing nationalist sentiments at home which have an impact on China’s diplomatic decision-making. Given the complicated backdrop of regional disputes and U.S. rebalancing strategy, Dr. Qiu noted, some neighbouring countries “have adopted a duel strategy, relying on China in economy but turning to the U.S. for security commitment.” Mr. Qiu admitted “in terms of soft power and values, China seems to be weaker nevertheless.”[18]

Strategic convergence of U.S. Allies and Partners

In response to geopolitical changes, the U.S. has reshaped its global security strategy making Asia-Pacific a top priority. Washington is focused on marshalling its regional treaty allies, and strengthening political ties with countries involved in territorial disputes with China. On the security side the U.S. is helping boost its allies’ military capabilities, and providing them with updated defence equipment to counter China’s technical advancement.

Vietnam has vehemently protested Beijing’s island-building activity. Hanoi has bitter-sweet feelings for its northern neighbour. For over half a century their bilateral relations have been like a roller coaster ride, from comrades-in-arms during the anti-American war, to enemies in a large-scale border war and then back to normal neighbours. Recent years have seen the two former communist allies jostling each other over sovereignty of disputed territory in the South China Sea.

In mid-2014 China deployed a giant drilling rig into waters that Vietnam considered its exclusive economic zone. The move led to a fierce confrontation between the two countries,(80 Chinese ships including 7 People’s Liberation Army Navy warships and Vietnam Coastguard vessels) triggering off a series of massive anti-China protests followed by unrests and riots in Vietnam. The bilateral relations sank to the lowest point since 1988. The incident reinforced the Vietnamese perception of Beijing’s assertiveness in territorial disputes. On the maritime controversy Washington spoke out against China and in support of Vietnam.

The common geopolitical concerns have brought two former enemies together. Secretary of State John Kerry, while visiting Hanoi in early August after ASEAN meetings, praised the virtues of reconciliation with Vietnam, marveling at the explosive growth in bilateral relations over the past two decades.[19] One month earlier, a state visit to the U.S. by the Vietnamese party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, elevated the relations to a new level. Diplomatically, Vietnam takes a balanced, phased approach while handling its ties with the U.S. and China, a reminder of Mao’s China deliberately dealing with Washington and Moscow in the 1970s.

The Philippines has a bitter, sometimes openly hostile relation with Beijing over control of islands in the South China Sea. China took control of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012 and stepped up its action the following year against the Filipino troops deployed on an outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippines has become the first country to take China to court over the maritime disputes, kicking off a protracted legal showdown at The Hague.

As a U.S. security partner, Japan possesses advanced naval and air military mechanisms as well as amphibious warfare capabilities. With the recent passage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s security bill in the Japanese Diet and the consolidation of its ties with the U.S., Australia and the Philippines, Japan is moving closer to the centre of the regional stage. The move carries a significant geopolitical implication of hedging against an aggressive China and of strengthening relations with ASEAN members exemplified by Tokyo’s closer cooperation with Manila.

For the first time ever Japanese forces joined a U.S.-led maritime humanitarian drill off the coast of the Philippines in mid-August when tensions were high between Manila and Beijing over China’s island-building in the Spratly Islands. Japan had participated in two other joint exercises with the Philippines months earlier following the signing of a defence pact with Manila. The joint maritime drills highlight an ongoing trilateral convergence between the Philippines, Japan and the U.S. in countering China’s growing influences.

China’s Military Goes to Open Sea

While announcing a halt to island-building programs, China is continuing to flex military muscles, conducting naval exercises in international waters with the purpose of boosting its maritime presence and also soothing stronger nationalist sentiments at home. According to Beijing’s new defence white paper “China’s Military Strategy”, China plans to broaden its influence over the South China Sea and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be adding “open seas protection” to “offshore waters defense” in its naval mission.[20]

As claimant neighbours have forged security ties with each other and with the U.S., the PLA has re-established military partnership with its old ally Russia. Chinese troops joined Russian forces in a combined naval exercise in the Sea of Japan off the coast of eastern Russia in late August, involving vessels, aircraft and marines from both sides. From late July to early August China launched its grand naval manoeuvres off the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, over which Vietnam maintains a territorial claim. “The annual exercise by the Chinese navy aims to test the soldiers’ real combat effectiveness, boost their manoeuvrability, search and rescue power and the capabilities to fulfill diversified military missions,” said a Chinese navy spokesperson.[21]

The Chinese Coast Guard has been aggressively patrolling the disputed South China Sea, taking “small, incremental steps” to avoid military conflict, but working to “increase its effective control” over the islands.[22] The Chinese government has approved guidelines making civilian vessels quickly convertible for military use. In recent years many of China’s confrontations with its neighbours in disputed waters have been conducted with a combination of military and civilian vessels including fishing boats.[23]

China’s assertiveness has alarmed U.S. military, which fears Beijing’s maritime ambition could pose a risk of potential confrontation with U.S. troops as well as a threat to one of the busiest commercial shipping routes in the world. Actually, China’s military has lagged behind the U.S. forces in terms of combat effectiveness and military equipment including combat vessels and aircraft, though the PLA has outweighed all its neighbours’ military. Moreover, the PLA, which is caught in an unprecedented massive anti-graft drive and reorganization, hasn’t involved a real battle for nearly three decades, not to mention a high-tech air-sea war.


Given the economic interconnectivity between the Asia-Pacific countries and U.S.-led regional collective security mechanism, competition over control of disputed waters is unlikely to spiral out of control despite the risks of potential clashes between the concerned parties.

The two major players in the region, China and the U.S. are aware of each others’ bottom line. Beijing is insisting its core interests including national sovereignty and political system, and Washington is asserting its strategic interests and freedom of navigation in the areas. There might be divergences between diplomats and generals in assessment of situations on each side, but unlikely to lead to major misjudgement in the decision-making process.

Asia-Pacific countries, including ASEAN members, Japan and Australia, have closer economic connections to China and stronger security ties with the U.S. So long as channels of communication and economic exchanges were unimpeded, the risks of miscalculations would be reduced. Under no circumstances, could a single country, regardless of its size or system, afford an armed conflict, let along an all-out war, solely for land reclamation.

China, whose economic development relies on geopolitical stability, is expected to continue to follow the ambitious but pragmatic growth-oriented path, which is symbolized by Beijing’s winning the right to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, the opening of Shanghai Disneyland in the spring of 2016, and the China-led 57-member Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank taking shape. Wrangling over sovereignty would be continuing, so would diplomatic wrestling, along with showing military muscles, among the relevant parties. To sum up, there might be frictions, but unlikely the engagement between the concerned nations.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official policies of The Mackenzie Institute.