China’s efforts to establish regional hegemony - comment

With its re-emergence as the dominant economy in the region, China has widened its claims on features in the South China Sea and islands in the East China Sea.

OFFICIALS APPLAUD Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March. (photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/ REUTERS)
OFFICIALS APPLAUD Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March.
The world is once again experiencing great power competition, a competition that could cascade into conflict and catastrophe. Terrestrial land disputes have expanded into the maritime domain with China having disputes with states in Southeast Asia, India and Japan. Chinese efforts to dominate Southeast Asian politics and redistribute power is placing the region into the position of trying to balance its security interests and national security interests. China is effectively using its asymmetric economic relations with its neighbors to achieve its security strategic objectives, which focus on territorial control and political deference by neighbors.
With its re-emergence as the dominant economy in the region, China has widened its claims on features in the South China Sea and islands in the East China Sea, many through its domestic legislation and invention of historic claims as tools to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
The effectiveness of domestic legislation by China in terms of securing its claims in the South China and East China seas is, however, debatable. Many such claims are not recognized by international bodies and courts. One such claim in the South China Sea was ruled illegal by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016 in a case drawn upon by the Philippines.
China is using its domestic legislation to expand its exclusive economic zones by creating municipalities at the edge of South China Sea, which gives legal foundation for the exclusive economic zones. Again, the effectiveness of the method is debatable as it has not been tested. China has, however, built its influence in the region through asymmetric trade relations and has thus maintained a position of influence in the region.
The parallel here can be drawn to compare the control through domestic legislation between the Chinese claim on the South China Sea and the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. Japan has controlled the Senkaku Islands for over a century now, and there is a continuity via coast guard and environmental management in that control, mostly and mainly through domestic legislation and international partnership; no such continuity of control with regard to Chinese claims is existent on the ground in the South China Sea.
The invention of historic claims by China as a tool for foreign policy is even more debatable and problematic. To analyze this one must search in history for any signs of claims of sovereignty by China over the island territories in the South China Sea. No such claim can be found.
Bill Hayton, in his book Invention of China, writes in detail about how during the Ching (Qing) Dynasty, China showed no interest in the island formations in the South China Sea, whether the islands neighboring Indonesia, Vietnam or the Philippines. China has never set any claim to any of the island territories and thus the invention of historic claim is not only debatable but problematic as well.
The UNCLOS treaty signed by 117 states that sets the 200-mile limit for Exclusive Economic Zones gives these countries a claim over the island formations in the South China Sea. UNCLOS, however, is not ratified by the US, which gives it a loose footing to enforce any such binding on China. This is despite the US conducting operations within the scope of the law.
ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) could play a significant role in resolving the territorial issues, but because it is a loose association of nations it doesn’t have the legal capability to challenge and enforce its decisions on China. Hitherto, it has till now not played any decisive role.
AT THE 2014 ASEAN Summit, a consensus was developed to issue a joint statement with regard to territorial disputes, however Cambodia succumbed to influence from China making a joint statement impossible. This fracturing of ASEAN unity and division of opinion is mainly achieved through aid and pledges to promote development; an example of how China uses its economic influence to shape the behavior of neighboring states.
With most of the ASEAN states are not claimants in the SCS disputes, China has a free hand in manipulating the decision-making capability of ASEAN. The ASEAN members hold mixed views about China. Some members perceive China as an economic opportunity and think that China is critical for the development of ASEAN member states, while others see China as a state having dominating and hegemonic interests in the region, thus the relationship of China and ASEAN will always be important but challenging.
The main problem is the power asymmetry between China and Southeast Asian states. The countries seek critical strategic autonomy to resolve the South China Sea issues peacefully and effectively. The pattern we are seeing at the individual level is to bring in the extra regional power to the region to enhance human capital and other capabilities so they can push back unilaterally against some of the more assertive behavior of China. This becomes more important for ensuring that the economic, political and national security interests of smaller nations are met and secured.
Japan has been most active in establishing strategic partnerships, by providing coast guard vessels, maritime domain awareness and human capital building to strengthen individual members and to enhance the ASEAN’s integration. Japan’s role is even more important when it comes to Chinese maritime militia (fishermen boat strategy). The militia is trying to instigate the escalations and to allow China to build an image wherein it is seen as being defensive. The militia is used to build pressure on the states and in case of the Philippines. China has already occupied some features in the South China Sea using these militia forces. The militia move in and out of the sovereign boundaries of other nations and every such movement is a planned part to build on Lawfare strategy e.g., in the case of the Senkaku Islands.
To counter the strategy of China in the South China and East China sea, US-led FONOPs are trying to build a significant naval presence. The US has yet to designate a dedicated naval fleet for the South China Sea, however, it has a constant presence, 365 days a year. The effect of this permanent presence is that China has adopted a strategy of escalating with other US allies. The naval cooperation and joint exercises in the South China Sea are challenging China in particular when French and Canadian navies are also getting involved. Quad and Quad-plus-like cooperation is the way forward, however this could lead to catastrophe if management maritime systems and communication channels are not established. China has to adjust to the presence of the extra regional power in the South China Sea, and the US and its allies have to work to keep Chinese assertive behavior at bay while avoiding accidental conflict.
Dr. Stephen Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo, a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs. His recent research projects are ‘Sino-Japanese relations in the wake of the 2012 territorial disputes: Investigating changes in Japanese business’s trade and investment strategy in China,’ and ‘Perceptions and drivers of Chinese view on Japanese and US foreign policy in the region.’ He is working on middle power approaches to great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.