China's dilemma: Nationalism could hijack policy response

China's national flag flutters in Beijing on Oct 29, 2015.
China's national flag flutters in Beijing on Oct 29, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

AT the Halifax International Security Forum on Nov 21, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the United States Pacific Command, confirmed that "the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows and that the South China Sea is not, and will not be, an exception".

However, such actions can make it seem that the US is intent on demonstrating its predominance in the South China Sea. As such, there is no denying that these activities have worked to undermine China-US military trust and aggravate regional tensions by disregarding Chinese concerns on sovereignty and security interests in the area.

It has also stirred up a wave of nationalism among Chinese policymakers, scholars and netizens.

Calls for tough countermeasures have risen to new heights in China since the USS Lassen, an Aegis guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of China-claimed and occupied Subi and Mischief reefs in the South China Sea on Oct 27, 2015.

Assertive actions of this kind have aggravated a simmering nationalism, which is exerting a greater influence on, or, in the worst scenario, is likely to hijack the Chinese policymaking process.

Nationalism is likely to place the Chinese government on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, the Chinese government seems to maintain an ambiguous position on the legal status of the long-debated nine-dash line and the artificial islands.

The nine-dash line in maps issued by the Chinese government appears to assert Chinese claims over much of the South China Sea, although China has not filed a formal or defined claim to the territories within that demarcation.

Such ambiguity allows the Chinese government more flexibility to deal with the disputes and develop a more comprehensive strategy to address South China Sea issues.

On the other hand, nationalism has to some extent coerced the government into growing maritime assertiveness.

AMBIGUITY OVER NINE-DASH LINE

One reason for China to remain ambiguous regarding the legal status of the nine-dash line is that the international community has not reached a universal consensus on the connotation of "historical rights", and the legal regime established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has not given a clear-cut definition on this concept.

China also has its own practical considerations. If it clarifies its stance by declaring the nine-dash line to be a line of national boundary, it is tantamount to sending a clear message to the Chinese people that all the islands, reefs and other insular features within the line belong to China.

But given how improbable it would be to secure a return of islands occupied by other claimants at least in the near future, China would then be in a difficult position.

If it did nothing, it might lose part of its credibility with the Chinese people, particularly when public opinion is being dominated by nationalism.

Virtually any other steps would guarantee that China would become entrapped in a new round of bruising diplomatic disputes.

The inclination towards maintaining ambiguity regarding the nine-dash line still has a relatively great influence within Chinese diplomatic community. This is also widely thought to be conducive to regional peace and stability.

AMBIGUITY OVER THE LEGAL STATUS OF ARTIFICIAL ISLANDS

When it comes to the legal nature of the artificial islands, the Chinese government also has few options but to take an ambiguous stance, at least for the time being.

As stipulated by the Article 121 of UNCLOS, an island is a naturally formed area of land, surrounded by water, which is above water at high tide. But geographically, Subi and Mischief reefs were once perceived as "low-tide elevations" by various parties concerned before China piled sand and built structures on them. Under the UNCLOS definition, then, the features are not naturally formed and cannot be used as the basis to claim 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.

China has not made any statement indicating any expansion of its sovereign territory due to the reclamation work, and it doesn't seem likely to do so in the future.

Washington's provocative freedom of navigation (FON) assertions demonstrate that its true concerns are for military rather than commercial freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But China has clearly and repeatedly stated that it has no interest in impeding the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

From a Chinese perspective, it seems that the US intends to demonstrate its continued military presence in the region and to challenge China's interpretations of UNCLOS regarding appropriate behavior for military vessels.

TOUGH CALL FROM NATIONALISM

However, nationalism has been grabbing more and more attention, and is putting pressure on the Chinese government to take tough stances or even provide military responses to such situations.

Advocates of nationalism may not understand the complex nature of the disputes in the South China Sea and the diplomatic relations between China and its neighbours.

If China responds in any way with a military show of force, as the advocates of nationalism demand, then the diplomatic agencies will be forced to come to the stage to clarify the legal status of the artificial islands and the nine-dash line, a case that will undoubtedly put the Chinese government under renewed criticism from other disputants and the rest of the international community.

Notably, the advocates of nationalism seem to have selectively neglected the fact that in early September a group of five Chinese vessels passed within 12 nautical miles of the Aleutian Islands after a joint Russian-Chinese military exercise.

Although the Pentagon considered this to be an unusual manoeuvre that would underscore the potential for increased US-Chinese friction at sea, the US defence officials said they did not move any navy ships in response to China's vessels.

"China is a global navy, and we encourage them and other international navies to operate in international waters as long as they adhere to safe and professional standards and maritime laws of the sea," said Commander William Marks, a US Navy spokesman.

BALANCE BETWEEN AMBIGUITY AND NATIONALISM

China has been trying to strike a balance between strategic ambiguity and rising nationalism. China has already been criticized for adopting increasingly assertive claims, such as declaring the South China Sea as related to Chinese core interests, strengthening its fishery law enforcement, and building civilian facilities and defence-oriented military presence on the artificial islands. It seems that we cannot preclude the role of nationalism in such actions.

China's rising military power and political influence in East Asia have caused anxiety and suspicion among other disputants and in Washington. In particular, its growing assertiveness over sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea is viewed as a serious challenge to the status quo in the region.

Meanwhile, however, China has repeatedly voiced its willingness to make constructive moves to contribute to regional peace and stability. Over the past years, it has been committed to bolster confidence-building measures to boost military trust with the US.

Just as Mr Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of Chinese Central Military Commission, remarked at the 6th Xiangshan Forum on Oct 17, China would never recklessly resort to the use of force even on issues regarding sovereignty, a clear show of restraint amid rising pressure from the nationalism.

In November last year, China and the US signed two mutual trust mechanisms, namely the Mutual Reporting and Trust Mechanism on Major Military Operations, and the Memorandum of Understanding on the Code of Safe Conduct on Naval and Air Military Encounters.

This March, the two sides conducted joint familiarisation-oriented exercises on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

As annexes to these two agreements, China and the US signed a reporting system on major military operations as well as a code of safe conduct on naval and air force encounters.

Such confidence-building efforts reduce the likelihood of military conflicts in the South China Sea, but are more likely to be put to the test if the US and China continue to be at odds with each other over the FON operations.

It is inadvisable for the US to try to push China into taking a clear-cut stand on the legal nature of the nine-dash line and the artificial islands.

In light of American muscle-flexing in the South China Sea in recent years, we cannot preclude the possibility for China to take into account certain precautionary measures like promulgating the territorial sea baseline of the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands), bolstering defensive military deployment on the artificial islands and declaring an air defence identification zone.

Besides, the US remembers the lessons learnt in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, which demonstrate the limitations of trying to build stability with military means.

It is incumbent upon the US to honour its commitment to keep a neutral stance in the South China Sea.

Jiang Zongqiang and Hu Xin are respectively assistant research fellow at the China National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) and senior research fellow at the Washington-based Institute of China-America Studies (ICAS).

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