Time to End Strategic Ambiguity in the South China Sea

By Greg Poling

Deliberately imprecise language of claimants like China and Vietnam impairs arbitration via bodies like the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Source: Tilo 2006's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

CSIS hosted its second annual conference on the South China Sea June 27–28. As expected, the event saw its fair share of sparks between the panelists. This was especially true between the Chinese and Philippine & Chinese and Vietnamese speakers. One clear message developed: ambiguity over the territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea does not serve anyone’s interests.

While participants tended to revisit the issues of sovereignty and table ideas for just managing rather than resolving disputes, this year’s conference felt markedly different than the one on broadly the same theme last year. There was palpable tension in the room as each of three Chinese experts sought to defend Beijing’s positions. It is important to note the plural “positions,” because there was scant agreement as to what precisely the Chinese position is. Fellow panelists and several sharp questioners from the audience demonstrated that there was little appetite for vague pronouncements of Chinese policy and justifications.

What the audience was expressing was precisely the exasperation that has spread through policy communities both in Washington and Asia. It is exasperation not with the South China Sea dispute itself, or even with perceived recent aggressiveness from Beijing, both of which have become part of the regional landscape. Rather, it is frustration with the perpetual uncertainty created by a Chinese policy that amounts to avoiding taking a position at all costs. Without a defined Chinese position, resolving claims and reconciling positions is not possible.

China’s policy of strategic ambiguity, as it has been euphemistically called, serves its purposes well in Southeast Asia. It allows China the flexibility to interpret its position to serve the audience at hand. This is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was able to issue its well-publicized statement in February 2012 stating that no nation claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea and that the dispute is only about the “islands and adjacent waters.” This raised hopes in the United States and among the other Asian claimants that China was backing away from the 9-dash lines claim and moving to bring its claims in line with international law.

That, however, has clearly not been the case. This year’s tensions in the sea started with a two-month standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at Scarborough Shoal. That confrontation, despite pronouncements to the contrary from Beijing, served as an example of a creeping evolution in Beijing’s claims. For years the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea extended only to the Spratlys (Nansha, or “South Banks”) and Paracels (Xisha, or “West Banks”). Any claim to other features, like Scarborough Shoal, was only implied in so far as they fell within the ambiguous 9-dash lines. Then China extended its claim to the entirely submerged Macclesfield Bank via the imaginary Zhongsha, or “Middle Banks,” despite there being no way under international law to claim title over a submerged feature as if it were an island. Further, in recent years, as Beijing has tried to move beyond an over reliance on the indefensible 9-dash lines, Scarborough Shoal has been incorporated as part of Zhongsha. The fact that it lies hundreds of miles from Macclesfield Bank or that it appears on none of the historical documents China puts forth to prove its title to the Spratlys and Paracels seemingly does not matter.

Beijing showed similar disregard for the policy put forth in its February Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement when in early May  it reinstated its annual unilateral fishing ban for all of the South China Sea above the 12th parallel. Such a ban would be possible only if China were claiming all the waters within the 9-dash lines, not only its “islands and adjacent waters.” Then in late June, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) fired a shot across Vietnam’s bow by announcing the company would open nine oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea to foreign bids. The catch was that all nine blocks lie within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Vietnam, and many in fact overlap with existing blocks already leased by Vietnam, including those committed to Exxon-Mobil. More importantly, CNOOC’s blocks are not defensible under a claim to the “islands and adjacent waters” of the South China Sea because there is no island within 200 nautical miles (the maximum allowable EEZ) of all the blocks.

These developments highlight the need for the ASEAN claimants—Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei—to take a stand on what is genuinely in dispute in the South China Sea and what is not. As long as that fundamental fact remains unclear, China will continue to employ ambiguous and contradictory claims to pursue its interests in the South China Sea at the expense of its smaller neighbors.

Mr. Gregory Poling is a research associate for the CSIS Southeast Asia program. An extended version of this blog post is available in the newsletter commentary from “Southeast Asia From the Corner of 18th & K,” here .

Gregory Poling

Gregory Poling

Mr. Gregory B. Poling is a Fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.