Multiple aircraft fly in formation over the USS Ronald Reagan, a US Navy aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Photo: Kaila V Peters / US Navy

Like all big powers, China has different policies and spins for different audiences. This is particularly so for the South China Sea.

China’s policies and approaches for the US and other “outsiders” are different from those for Southeast Asian countries, particularly its rival claimants. This is understandable. But some elements of its policies and approaches for different audiences are inconsistent and even contradictory.

This is in part because of the US purposely conflating its interests with those of Southeast Asian countries. Indeed, China thinks that the US is using the disputes and its rival claimants to contain and constrain what it sees as its rightful rise to regional domination.  This makes it difficult to differentiate its approaches to the different audiences.

China’s main concern regarding the US and other extra-regional powers in the South China Sea is its national defense and security. For Beijing, the South China Sea is a historically vulnerable underbelly that must be turned into a “natural shield for its national security.” 

Moreover, that sea now is at the center of the US-China strategic contest for regional dominance. Its control is near-existential for China because it provides relative “sanctuary” for its second-strike nuclear submarines that are its insurance against a first strike – something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed.

A major purpose of Beijing’s military installations on features it occupies is to detect US submarines that are a threat to China. But its rival claimants view its occupation and militarization of its occupied features as aimed primarily at them, thus conflating their interests with that of the US. 

The US is now building a coalition of like-minded democracies to contain and constrain China, including in Asia – Japan, Australia, India and South Korea – and in Europe – the UK, Germany and France. The maritime focus of this coalition is on a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and in particular “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea.

But many nations distinguish between freedom of commercial navigation and the “freedom” to threaten and spy. China has not threatened commercial transit, and Southeast Asian nations recognize this. China does oppose in word and deed US military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes that threaten its security.

The US cleverly conflates the two “freedoms” and has tried to rally Southeast Asian countries to support and join it in demonstrating this position. But so far they have distinguished between what is in the interests of the US military and their interests, and have not done so.

In their July 26 meeting in Tianjin, in reference to the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman that ”the United States must not violate China’s sovereignty or harm its territorial integrity.” While directed at the US, there is some spillover effect of this “bottom line” on China’s rival claimants.

However, China’s approach to Southeast Asia and its rival claimants is by comparison mostly sweetness and light. It probably does not feel that its national security is threatened by use of force and thus emphasizes multilateralism, dialogue and cooperation.

This was exemplified by Wang’s policy speech to this month’s Symposium on Global Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance 2021 meeting in Sanya, Hainan, attended by Southeast Asian scholars, former senior officials and diplomats.

He advocated “multilateralism and the defense of the UN-centered system – including the maritime order underpinned by international law.” This is probably not the approach he would use toward the US. Of course he meant multilateralism in the region without the involvement of outside powers and that China has its own interpretations of what that maritime order is or should be.

The US is trying to lure Southeast Asian countries to its side by claiming that China wants to revise the existing maritime order. Because the status quo is to the advantage of some of China’s rival claimants, they do occasionally join the fray and support the US argument.

Wang also stressed the “need to stay committed to dialogue and consultation,” and Beijing has done so with Southeast Asian countries. But it seems reluctant to talk to the US.

The US probably argues to the Southeast Asian countries that dialogue between a big power like China and small states favors China. Moreover, it might say that time is on China’s side as it grows ever more powerful and it is in its interest to keep talking while it incrementally implements its preferences at the expense of its rival claimants. So far the Southeast Asian states have not accepted that argument.

Wang claimed that China “always respects the legitimate [emphasis added] pursuit of maritime interests by all others.” But the key here is the meaning of “legitimate interest.” The US would argue that the pursuit of any interest that is not in China’s interest is in China’s eyes not “legitimate.” Some Southeast Asian nations do seem to buy into that view.

He also asserted that “we need to stay committed to openness and inclusiveness.” This could be interpreted as a criticism of US “exclusiveness” as manifested by its China-containment concept of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and its corollaries, the Quad and AUKUS. 

The two approaches are also conflated in Beijing’s responses to its maritime disputes with other South China Sea littoral countries. China believes that the former Western colonies are stealing its fish and petroleum in collaboration with outside Western companies and powers. So it sometimes criticizes both simultaneously, adding to the confusion.

Wang said China would uphold the principle of shared benefits and shared governance. This was specifically aimed at China’s rival claimants and was probably a bid for them to enter joint development agreements for resources in their claimed exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This does clearly distinguish its approach to rival claimants from that to the US, which is not a claimant.

Finally, Wang said “we need to stay committed to green development and jointly protect the marine environment.” Again this was directed specifically at South China Sea littoral countries. China has told the US that it will not cooperate on retarding climate change unless relations in other areas improve. So it will cooperate with South China Sea countries on environmental protection, but not outside powers like the US.

These sentiments were repeated and elaborated in a keynote speech to the Sanya conference by Assistant Foreign Minister Wu Jianghao. He asserted that China has always strictly observed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Many in and out of the region would dispute this, beginning with China’s willful failure to abide by the decision of an international arbitration panel set up under the auspices of UNCLOS.

That panel ruled that China’s claim to historic waters within the nine-dash line is contrary to UNCLOS. Yet to the dismay of rival claimants, China continues to act as if the claim is still valid. This gives the US the opportunity to point out this common ground to the Southeast Asian claimants.

Wu followed this assertion with “we are committed to build an equitable mutually beneficial, fair and reasonable international maritime order….” This hints at Beijing’s intent to revise the prevalent international order in China’s favor, starting with the South China Sea. 

This is where the US and Southeast Asian countries also find common ground. Although Wu said “China opposes confrontation, with a view to building a new international maritime order that benefits the world,” this cannot realistically be achieved without confronting the existing order and those countries like the US and China’s rival claimants that support it.

Wu went on to try to distinguish Beijing’s approach to Southeast Asian countries from that to “outside” powers:

“We ask forces outside the region to respect the regional countries’ will and efforts, instead of arbitrarily infringing on coastal states’ sovereignty and security, stirring up troubles out of nothing, deliberately sowing discord, or disrupting peace and stability in the South China Sea.” However, this effort to distinguish its approaches has not been fully successful.

These speeches and a substantive paper by Wu Shicun, founding president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, presented a relatively new vision. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, through agreement on an effective Code of Conduct, could forge a new model of regional ocean governance for the world that integrates existing norms with evolving ones.

Given the common interest between its rival claimants and the US in supporting the status quo, this is much easier said than done. But if successful, it would be a significant step toward integrating Beijing’s policies for the South China Sea with those of its rival claimants and forging a united front against outsiders.

Meanwhile China should strive better to distinguish its policies and spin on the South China Sea between that for Southeast Asia and that for outside powers, thus narrowing the common ground between them.

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.