On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarded the verdict over the dispute in the South China Sea between China and Philippines. The tribunal decided in favour of the Philippines by rejecting China’s claims to the South China Sea based on the “nine-dash line” map and specified that it had “no legal basis”. It pointed out that Beijing’s “historic rights” did not comply with the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), and that there was “no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources.” In response to this verdict, People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CPC) official mouthpiece, published a commentary that stated, “We do not claim an inch of land that does not belong to us, but we won’t give up anything that is ours.” This very statement clearly reflects China’s intentions on the South China Sea. There remains no doubt regarding the fact that China will take all necessary measures to safeguard and protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime interests. Thereby, China’s South China Sea policy is defined by its assertive and uncompromising attitude.

 

What will be China’s next step? Will China declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea?  To assess these pertinent questions, it needs to be probed deeper as to whether China will further increase its assertive militarised posture, or will it tone down its approach and become more restrained. For until the Tribunal’s rejection of Beijing’s claims, China’s South China Sea strategy was based on using the international law to advance or protect its interests. The Spratly features that Beijing claims do not generate jurisdiction over waters beyond 12 nautical miles from any one of them. Also, construction of artificial islands has not added maritime legal rights to the features. To say so, as China’s official position, as submitted to the United Nations in 2009, which reflects its position on the UNCLOS, states that:

 

“China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and the adjacent waters, and enjoys sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the relevant waters as well as seabed and subsoil […]”.

 

The caveat lies in the fact that since the Tribunal ruling has no legal binding as there exist no enforcement provisions in the UNCLOS; and therefore, the Tribunal does not act as an effective tool to keep China’s unilateral moves under check. Given this contention, rather China’s counter attack against the Tribunal rests on a much stronger and expansive policy in the South China Sea. What is to be expected is that Beijing, with its discarding of the ruling, will rather enhance its assertive policy instead of limiting its military deployment and activities. As witnessed in the two occasions in the aftermath of the Tribunal, China at both G-20 as well as the East Asia Summit in 2016 took a stern posture in raising the South China Sea maritime dispute. In response to United States’ raising concerns over China’s assertive posture, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that Beijing would continue to “unswervingly safeguard” its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.

 

Further adding to Beijing’s fixed posture, from September 12 to 19, China and Russia launched eight days of “Joint Sea Exercise 2016” in Guangdong’s Zhanjiang. Being China’s first ever and biggest bilateral combat exercises with Russia in the South China Sea, it is important to note that this military showdown was held in the South China Sea hotspot, in the aftermath of the Tribunal ruling. This exercise included China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Nanhai Fleet and involved exercises such as anti-submarine operations, landing, island-seizing, search and rescue, and weapon use. Calling the exercise as “routine”, China’s Defence Ministry Spokesman, Yang Yujun categorically pointed out that the exercise “does not target any third party”. However, it cannot be dismissed that the scope and location of the China’s joint military projection with Russia does entail a strong signalling.

 

It has to be noted that tensions have ratcheted up in the past two years, given China’s land reclamation activities in the Spratly Islands, turning sandbars into islands equipped with airfields, ports and lighthouses. China has further escalated the tensions by reacting to the US’ freedom of navigation operations in the region by calling it “a coercive action that seeks to militarize the South China Sea region” and an act of “abuse” of freedom of navigation under international law. Asserting Beijing’s position, Chinese President Xi Jinping, in his speech in Singapore in 2015, strongly reaffirmed that the disputed islands in the South China Sea have been “Chinese territory since ancient times” and that China has the “inescapable responsibility to safeguard territorial sovereignty and legitimate maritime rights.”

 

What lies at the crux of China’s South China Sea Policy? This pertinent query has become a subject of international scrutiny. Most importantly, Beijing’s ascending assertion has become a source of critical concern for countries with overlapping sovereignty claims as well as strategic interests in the region; wherein the arguments include the historical significance of the South China Sea, the role of international law, and international negotiations and cooperation. Given this context, it becomes imperative to understand China’s behaviour in the South China Sea from twin perspectives: firstly, China’s strategic interests in the South China Sea, and secondly, China’s approach to pursue its interests.

 

Given China’s rapid economic growth, Beijing’s strategic interests in the South China Sea include economic, energy and national security – making it a core interest of Beijing. China’s primary objective is that of ensuring sovereignty over the South China Sea, which will completely resolve its ‘Malacca dilemma’. That is, a strong military and naval presence in the waters of the South China Sea will: (1) effectively fortify its trade and energy routes’security in the South China Sea. For instance, it would significantly offset any potential threat to the security of its sea-routes, mainly from the US Navy in the Strait of Malacca; and (2) protect any further action to explore oil and gas resources, undertake maritime patrols and assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea. This will further enhance China’s regional clout. Therefore, what makes the South China Sea a core interest is the strategic importance of the sea in China’s national security calculus.

 

In order to achieve its interests driven by an ambition to become a powerful sea power, China has adopted an assertive approach in the South China Sea. In this regard, it is argued that China will pursue its national aim of building itself into a “strong sea power”, first by establishing a solid hold on the “near seas,” that is, the sea waters within China’s first island chain; and then adopt a national (naval) strategy of pursuing “hegemony via-the sea” through a continued power-backed development of the more distant “far seas”. This argument seems to be validated by a significant shift in China’s maritime strategy as highlighted in the 2015 Defence White Paper, which states, “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned, and great importance has to be attached to managing the seas and oceans and protecting maritime rights and interests.” This ambition is justified in China’s growing assertive and unilateral behaviour in the South China Sea.

 

Given the above twin interests, the central objective behind China’s artificial island building strategy in the South China Sea is for defensive purpose. Mainly driven by the military rationale, Pentagon’s 2016 Annual Report on China’s military, pointedly suggests that: “When complete, these outposts will include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics facilities, and three airfields.” Since this logistical support will only help China “to use its reclaimed features as persistent civil-military bases to enhance its presence in the South China Sea significantly and enhance China’s ability to control the features and nearby maritime space,” it clearly reflects the core rationale behind China’s South China Sea policy.

 

The South China Sea has become a prime case that tests China’s resolve. Beijing’s attitude and intentions are clearer than ever, wherein its primary objective is to build its sphere of influence which is accorded by safeguarding its strategic interests. And in doing so, China is not likely to adopt any compromising or submissive posture. This thereby, leaves less room for any form of negotiation on settlement of the dispute. To say so, as China’s belligerence is greatly motivated by its high stakes in the sea, which is tough for China to concede. With a comprehensive strategic calculus at play, China’s South China Sea policy is increasingly driven and orchestrated by its belligerent and uncompromising attitude. Therefore, this leaves no inroad for any form of compromise by China with the countries involved in the South China Sea dispute.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal