The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once (nearly) said: “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single dash line”.
Recent Chinese activities in the South China Sea and Beijing’s claims of “indisputable sovereignty” inside the nine-dash line of China’s unilateral making show every sign of them taking this mantra seriously.
The latest Chinese stunt was to place a buoyed net around the Scarborough shoal to prevent Filipino fishing there. Almost immediately the Philippine coast guard dismantled it but the minute their fishing boats returned they were aggressively intercepted by the Chinese Coast Guard.
In terms of violating internationally recognised laws this is the equivalent of the Danes coming across to the Dogger Bank in the North Sea, throwing a net barrier around it and claiming we, the Dutch and the Germans were no longer allowed to fish there. It would be absurd if it wasn’t so serious.
If it’s not the Scarborough Shoal today then it’s the Second Thomas Shoal tomorrow where Beijing repeatedly and aggressively intervenes in Manila’s attempts to shore up and resupply the BRP Sierra Madre, the ageing ship deliberately grounded there for use as a base allowing the Phillipines to enforce their rights within their own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China claims its activities there are defensive in nature although it is hard to remember the last time a high-powered laser was used to blind someone defensively. Also, objecting to a rusting ship’s presence seems cheeky given that China has built dozens of runways in the middle of the sea, each with military infrastructure and advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems installed.
Taiwan continues to see a huge increase in military activity. This month alone has seen over 100 aircraft incursions across the median line in the Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). The UK scrambles Typhoon fighter jets to intercept the Russians when they do this with one aircraft. October sees the seasonally calmest seas there, ideal for small boat operations such as landing craft. There will be lots.
Those who dismiss all this as something that is ‘over there’ and therefore not relevant should remember several things.
First, people’s livelihoods depend on being able to fish and work in their own EEZs. I’m not talking (yet) about the $3.4 trillion of goods that transit through the South China Sea every year, but day-to-day activities on which bordering countries depend to survive and thrive. Fishing is an emotive subject everywhere.
Second, we need to uphold international law, the “rules based international order”. One would hope that this didn’t need defending, particularly in the UK or Europe as there is a bloody example of what happens if ignoring these laws becomes the norm playing out on our doorstep.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the backbone of the internationally recognised architecture that allows the world’s economic engine – maritime shipping – to operate. For a complex subject, it is remarkably clear as to how maritime territories should be divided. China, meanwhile, is equally clear that it doesn’t care. Beijing has dismissed the 2016 ruling from the Hague that China’s unilateral, historic claims to waters inside the nine-dash line were without legal foundation. Lawyers at the time were confident that over time China would acknowledge the ruling. Events since then have shown anything but.
Finally, and this is a consideration that those of us used to working near Iran will be very familiar with, all this pushing and shoving comes with a risk of escalation. Recent videos show how aggressive and unprofessional the Chinese are when conducting these activities. And I don’t just mean rigid inflatable boats riding off fishing boats, although that’s quite dangerous enough, but fighter jets conducting close passes on allied aircraft and so on. Sooner or later there will be an international loss of life – what happens then?
As ever, what to do about all this remains the issue. Professor Alessio Patalano has described Chinese activities in the South China Sea as ‘turning the fluidity of the maritime space into something that is hard territorialisation – without the legal grounding. Something that is deliberately designed to make proportional responses difficult – classic grey zone activity’.
Military analysts in the region have known for some time how bleak the ‘fight tonight’ prospect is there. US alliances in the region are good and getting better, but you can count the number of countries with weapons that would be of use ‘tonight’ on one finger. That the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has more ships than the US Navy is not up for debate. The USN wins on tonnage and firepower, but it cannot concentrate most or even much of its strength on the China coast, and when it operates there it is far from its bases. When it comes to logistics and sustainability, a combination of Chinese home advantage and the US currently going backwards in terms of sealift and long-range support is in danger of turning ‘fight tonight’ into ‘fight only tonight’.
Maersk’s recent decision to divest its US tanker fleet whilst escalating investments globally, including in China, is a real-time manifestation of this problem. Who that company would side with come the conflict is a whole other discussion.
Friends of mine in the infantry used to say that ‘logistics is the difference between a “click” and a “bang”’. Frustratingly, US long-term neglect of their Maritime Administration (MARAD) is giving this expression fleet-wide relevance.
This leaves three things to work on to counter increasing Chinese belligerence in the region: alliances, ‘lawfare’ and economic resilience. Concerned parties within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) need to move towards converging positions so as to strengthen their hand in the current negotiations with Beijing. Western nations must aim at tightening existing maritime legal provisions. We should all work on generating the conditions for economic resilience, especially among those most dependent on Chinese exports. The recent resolution of a twelve year dispute between Indonesia and Vietnam over their boundaries is a good example of what can be done in the face of the adversity in their backyard.
Earlier this month China issued their 2023 “standard map” with a 10 dash line on it, the bonus dash appearing east of Taiwan. It had also stolen parts of India and Russia, so at least they’re consistent. Timed to land just before the ASEAN summit in Jakarta and the G20 in New Delhi this is straight out of the Beijing diplomacy playbook – keep the discussions front of mind, apply pressure to participants and do nothing to help resolve them. Or ‘normalising illegal’, in short.
Maps are important and have started many a war, as have autocratic regimes externalising their internal woes and lashing out. The Falklands War was a result of these two elements combining and many died as a result. Chinese property market woes, high youth unemployment and sluggish exports might not bear direct comparison to the rampant inflation in Argentina prior to 1982, but considerable confusion as to who owns what does.
So what happens next – the 11 dash line? Fewer but longer dashes with gaps that we’re graciously allowed to sail through? A solid line enclosing an area of sea larger than the Mediterranean?
If you believe in the rights of countries to operate freely in their own waters and on the high seas – and the international laws that facilitate this – then something needs to be done to stand up to the bully. Showing a united front across dozens of countries, regional and international, backed by US military might remains the best solution for now. If recent escalations are due to increasing Chinese internal problems and/or a belief by Xi Jinping that militarily he now has the upper hand, one wonders for how long restraint can last.
I would still maintain that, barring a significant miscalculation, it is in no one’s interest for this to flare into conflict. We know from Lao Tzu that China has strategic patience.
More likely is that we will continue to do nothing about the creeping normalisation of illegal activity until one day we’ll wake up, all the maps will be different and there’ll be nothing we can do about it.
Tom Sharpe is a former Royal Navy officer and frigate captain