Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea: Five Minutes with Bill Hayton



Prior to a book talk organized by the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service Asian Studies Program, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Bill Hayton, a longtime reporter for the BBC whose latest book, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia and Vietnam, was published in September, to discuss rising tensions amongst China, its regional neighbors, and the United States in the Asia Pacific.

GJIA: Why is the threat of direct military confrontation in the South China Sea, a region with a long history of territorial disputes, higher now than ever before?

BH: Its important to understand that there are two kinds of dispute in the South China Sea. The first is the territorial dispute between the countries surrounding the sea, and the second is the larger set of disputes regarding the role of international law. This second set tends to involve the United States, which has a much bigger stake in questions of international law, freedom of navigation, and access to the sea. The danger is that these disputes might overlap in some way and transform a regional contest between the relatively small militaries of the countries immediately involved into a larger, more international conflict that concerns major world powers like the United States. While I think that the governments involved are too sensible to opt for outright military conflict, some of them are behaving very recklessly. China has been showing that it can do what it pleases in the South China Sea—apparently without fear of consequences. The United States is increasingly concerned about this. I have spoken to some foreign policymakers who feel that now is the time for pushback against China. The real unknown is what China’s response to a concerted pushback would be. My feeling is that China would indeed tone down its behavior in the South China Sea because it certainly has an awful lot to lose in the event of an armed conflict.

GJIA: Are China’s aggressive actions to assert its territorial claims more a result of its efforts to secure its economic interests in the South China Sea or its strategy of signaling its new hegemonic power over the rest of the region to the world?

BH: Five years ago, China had everything going for it: the United States was struggling through a financial crisis, China was becoming the largest trading partner of all the ASEAN countries, it had just signed the last part of a border agreement with Vietnam, the China-ASEAN free trade region was set to take effect in 2010, and the Philippines had a very pro-Chinese government in President Gloria Arroyo. Over the past five years, however, China has made a mess of its situation in the region. Regional fears of Chinese ambitions have created an opening for the United States to reenter the game. Indeed, countries in the region are encouraging the United States to reassert its influence as a balancing force. Much of what China has been doing over the past five years has been counterproductive to realizing what one might assume are its long-term interests. Economic weight alone could have peacefully carried the Chinese to hegemonic power, so it is puzzling to think why China has, in recent years, consistently taken a host of actions that appear to run counter to this desired goal.

We can’t know exactly why China has behaved in the way it has, but we can examine the different bureaucratic interests of the various players involved—specifically, Chinese oil companies, coastal provinces, as well as the Chinese Navy and coastguard, in order to get a sense of it. Each of these institutions has its own, unique bureaucratic interest in projecting power in the South China Sea and it seems to me that they have taken Chinese foreign policy by the nose. The foreign ministry is a relatively minor player within the Chinese political system and—in my view—is being dominated by these other entities. However, this is not the whole story. The last major incident in the South China Sea, the Chinese-Vietnamese oil rig standoff this past May-June, showed that a high degree of coordination can exist across different agencies and institutions. This operation couldn’t have been carried out without approval from the uppermost levels of the Chinese policymaking apparatus. It seems that Chinese leadership may have decided that now is the time for it to assert control without fear of facing repercussions. To some extent, this notion has been proven right. No one did anything to stop the oil rig incident this summer. Then again, however, the incident was a waste of China’s time: it gained nothing, neither oil nor territory.

There are many contending theories that seek to explain the dynamics of the situation and China’s overarching ambitions. I disagree with [Australian National University Professor of Strategic Studies] Hugh White, for example, who argues that China’s policy is to deliberately create stress and strain in the region to raise the costs of American involvement, thereby fracturing the United States’ commitment to the region and, consequently, allowing China emerge as the region’s hegemonic power by default. If this is its strategy, China is doing a bad job of executing it. I tend to think that there exists a slightly simpler explanation: that Chinese leadership, similar to a majority of the Chinese public, simply assumes that the South China Sea belongs to China through various misconceptions of history. Chinese leaders think, therefore, that they have the right to do as they please. China views competing claims and differing conceptions of history as unwelcome foreign intrusions. Because Chinese leaders understand the conflict through a Chinese perspective only, they have behaved erratically.

A U.S. Harrier jet, stationed aboard the USS Peleliu aircraft carrier, foregrounds an Aqua Luna Junk in Honk Kong (User See-ming Lee, Flickr Commons)

A U.S. Harrier jet, stationed aboard the USS Peleliu aircraft carrier, foregrounds an Aqua Luna Junk in Honk Kong (User See-ming Lee, Flickr Commons)

GJIA: What is the role of smaller states like the Philippines and Vietnam in these maritime disputes? What leverage can they exert to support their claims, especially against China?

BH: Vietnam is pursuing what might be referred as an asymmetric strategy. While China obviously trumps Vietnam in size and military capability, Vietnam is acquiring its own weapons systems—primarily advanced cruise missiles and submarines—that could theoretically balance out some elements of China’s military prowess. In doing so, Vietnam is seeking to instill some amount of doubt in the minds of China’s military leaders. The geographic position of the islands central to the Chinese-Vietnamese conflict in the South China Sea itself renders China somewhat vulnerable, as Chinese vessels must sail a long distance down the coast of Vietnam to reach them.

In terms of civil pressure and leverage, the Vietnamese and the Philippines are both investing in new and bigger coastguard ships. Some of these ships are being provided by Japan and South Korea, both of which are also concerned about the situation. These efforts serve to further even the balance between China and its smaller neighbors in the region. Nevertheless, China is currently building the world’s largest coastguard ships. What is likely to emerge is not an arms race but rather a coastguard race: which side can build the biggest ship to force their rivals to retreat in a way that doesn’t involve military force?

The real power of the smaller nations lies in their ability to refuse Chinese trade proposals. For quite some time now, China has been promoting the idea of a maritime silk root. It’s trying to link its coastal trade with ASEAN, and thus tie the ASEAN nations together. ASEAN has rejected these efforts, but not overtly. The only ASEAN state that has any interest in the Chinese proposal is Cambodia, which is becoming very close to China in other ways as well. Importantly, by refusing to sign on, the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia have signaled that they are thoroughly displeased with Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.

GJIA: How does the United States perceive its role in the disputes? How does its perception differ from that of China and those of smaller regional nations?

BH: The United States’ main interest is ensuring freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. It has consistently remained neutral on the issue of the rights and wrongs of the territorial disputes themselves. The United States understands its position as maintaining its strategic interests in the region and bolstering the positions of those countries that support its strategic interests—that is, nearly all of the states of East and Southeast Asia. The United States does not want to be pulled into a confrontation defending, for example, the Philippines’ claim to some tiny rock in the South China Sea. Obviously, the Chinese take a different view. They believe the entire situation has been orchestrated by the United States, but that’s not what the evidence shows. Indeed, it was not until May 2009, when the Chinese themselves attached a map of the now famous U-shaped line to their submission to the Unites Nations, that widespread alarm regarding the South China Sea reignited. From this point on, a whole host of Chinese actions have encouraged Southeast Asia to invite the United States back into the region. The United States’ principal interests are to have China participate in the international system, play the game fairly and diplomatically, and rise peacefully without messing anything up.

GJIA: What policies or preventative measures might reduce the possibility of military conflict in the region? What are the major obstacles that are currently preventing this reduction?

BH: To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the bigger picture: what China wants and how it’s going about getting it. China is mainly concerned about reincorporating Taiwan into the mainland. It is building up military forces in a way that would prevent the United States from coming to the military aid of Taiwan, which is worrying to the Taiwanese. Moreover, the Chinese are also concerned about the security of their sea-land communication through the Straits of Malacca. Thus, Chinese officials claim that they need to build up forces to protect supply routes for imports and exports coming through the straits in the South China Sea. The problem is that China’s efforts to do these two things entail blocking the United States from the region and undermining its role as a global power. And that’s worrying to the United States.

So how does one actually persuade the two big powers—China and the United States—that their security is safe, convince China that the United States would never block the Straits of Malacca, and convince China to remove its military threat from Taiwan? Both parties would have to give cast-iron guarantees, and in the current strategic situation that seems unlikely. The Chinese Communist Party is convinced that the United States will try to undermine its rule by peaceful means. The question is whether China is willing to moderate some of its claims—for example, its U-shaped line in the South China Sea. In a few places, this line could certainly be adjusted in a way that could deescalate the conflict. Specifically, there is a portion of the line in which it is not unreasonable to think that China and Vietnam could agree to a maritime boundary. This would undoubtedly require some flexibility on the Chinese side, however. There also exists an overlap further south between Chinese and Indonesian claims that could be adjusted in a way that would reduce the chance of conflict. But I don’t think China is willing to do this.

Thus, there exists a profound absence of trust between China and the United States, and the region seems fated to continue in an edgy, confrontational manner moving forward. We may even see an ongoing conflict with dynamics similar to those of the Cold War. One hopes that all sides involved recognize that they would lose more than they would gain from a physical confrontation.

GJIA: In the event of a military conflict, Japan could potentially call upon the United States to provide direct military assistance in accordance with the 1960 Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Do you think the United States would shrink from direct involvement in an armed conflict in the South China Sea?

BH: Japan is mainly worried about the East China Sea, specifically the territory stretching from the Ryukyu Islands to the Senkaku Islands. Nevertheless, Japan obviously has a strategic interest in the South China Sea as well. In my own research, I found that one oil and gas tanker has to cross the South China Sea every six hours to keep the lights on in Japan. Thus, Japan, similar to Taiwan and South Korea, would be strongly opposed to any actions that would close the South China Sea. Anything that happens in the South China Sea that concerns these countries could result in a coming together of Japan, the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, India, and Vietnam. The Chinese could not take on a coalition of this sort. Consequently, it is likely that China will not provoke any type of confrontation that could unite all the countries that have strategic interests in the region, including the United States.

Nevertheless, the United States has explicitly put its credibility on the line with Japan by restating that the Mutual Defense Treaty does indeed apply to the Senkaku Islands. When China announced the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), however, the United States responded by deliberately flying B-52s through the zone without permission as a way to demonstrate that it does not recognize Chinese policy. In sum, the United States is increasingly realizing that it has to make grand gestures in the South China Sea and the East China Sea in order to reassure its regional allies that it is willing to stand up to China. The most important question is how China will react to these efforts.


Bill Hayton is a longtime reporter for the BBC News specializing in contemporary Asia. Most recently, he is the author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia and Vietnam, which was published by Yale University Press in September. Previously, he authored Vietnam: Rising Dragon, which was published by Yale UP in 2011. He has also written for The Times, the Financial Times, and the Bangkok Post.

Mr. Hayton was interview by Nick Sardi and Sydney Jean Gottfried on 23 October 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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