Measuring Assertiveness, Managing Crisis
Lessons Learned from the South China Sea
The South China Sea remains a hotly contested maritime domain. For more than a decade, China’s expanding presence has posed a challenge not only to the United States but more directly to Southeast Asian claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam, which have primarily responded through political and diplomatic actions. Darlene Onuorah spoke with Andrew Chubb, author of the NBR Special Report “Dynamics of Assertiveness in the South China Sea: China, the Philippines, and Vietnam, 1970–2015,” to discuss lessons for preventing and managing crises in disputed areas of the South China Sea.
This interview is accompanied by an updated Maritime Assertiveness Visualization Dashboard (MAVD) featuring an interactive, time-sensitive map of the South China Sea and new visual attributes depicting varying levels and kinds of assertiveness between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam through time.
Why are your report’s findings on assertive state behavior in the South China Sea important right now? How can measures of assertiveness explain the current dynamics of contestation between the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Philippines, and Vietnam?
One can think of assertive moves as the building blocks of a dispute. The assertive moves that countries make, the moves that advance a state’s position, essentially constitute what happens in the dispute and the way that it unfolds.
Outside the region, we usually approach the South China Sea disputes through a more abstract lens of great-power competition between the United States and China. However, there is a lot more to the South China Sea than great-power competition, as the “Dynamics of Assertiveness in the South China Sea” report bears out. The report highlights that very few of the assertive moves in the South China Sea have directly involved the United States. The way that this maritime contest really plays out is overwhelmingly in the assertive moves that the Southeast Asian countries and China are making toward each other. Even for policymakers and strategists coming at the issue from a narrow perspective of U.S. national interest or great-power competition, the crucial moments are still likely to emerge from moves by China and Southeast Asian claimants.
If you take the example of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, a series of moves by the Philippines and China ended up with China in control of a large atoll that the Philippines had previously loosely controlled. The loss of Scarborough Shoal is still seen in the Philippines’ strategic community as a major failed test of U.S. credibility in the region because the United States was not prepared to back up the Philippines. To at least some degree, the reason was the ambiguity in the definition of the situation. Ultimately, it is the day-to-day actions and reactions, decisions, debates, and politics among the various claimants that set the agenda for the United States and establish where it stands in the region. That is why it is important even for nonclaimant governments to rigorously study, categorize, and track changes in the claimants’ assertive actions.
How has China’s increasing military and economic power shaped its assertive behavior and policies in the South China Sea vis-à-vis the Philippines and Vietnam?
The story that the report highlights is of China’s increasing power, over a period of decades, finally overtaking the geographic advantages of proximity that the Southeast Asian countries started with in the South China Sea. However, it is also clear from the details of the timing of when China’s behavior changed that no simple correlation can be observed between China’s military and economic growth and its assertiveness.
By the early 2000s, China was already overwhelmingly strong militarily and economically, relative to those Southeast Asian countries. Yet, its assertive surge in the South China Sea did not begin until well after that. The early 2000s were actually a period of relative Chinese moderation. So then, why was the PRC not more assertive in the early 2000s, once its regional position of supremacy had been established and the United States was distracted in the Middle East? Well, it first needed to develop the specific capabilities to expand its control over vast maritime spaces—things like long-range patrol boats with crews capable of staying at sea for weeks at a time, large steel-hulled fishing trawlers, logistical supply lines to sustain the increased numbers of personnel out there.
That is why the PRC’s assertiveness does not just increase in correlation with its overall national power vis-à-vis its rival claimants in the South China Sea. The United States’ relative decline is also not the sole catalyst. The big shock to U.S. power was the global financial crisis in 2008, but the report clearly shows that China’s behavior changed from around 2006–7. Therefore, it is not simply a response to the global financial crisis and the general perception of the decline of U.S. power in the region, but an outcome of China’s development of those specific capabilities required for the very challenging task of exercising comprehensive control or administration over maritime spaces.
Power has been a key condition for China’s advancement and changing policy in the South China Sea, but there is a lot more to the situation than that. It was by no means a given that China would behave as it has, because it took a lot of planning, persistence, and active choices from people within the Chinese system to push this agenda.
How have the Philippines’ and Vietnam’s actions in the South China Sea since 2016 been shaped by Chinese behavior? Do these actions reflect continuity or change in these countries’ strategies to advance their claims?
The situation is a bit different between the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines, for its part, was bolder during the period of Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency than is commonly known. Despite Duterte’s pro-China rhetoric, if we look at the substance of what he did, the story is quite different. The Duterte administration made long-awaited and major upgrades to infrastructure on Pag-asa Island, lifted a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in disputed areas of the South China Sea, and increased coast guard patrols in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, including areas affirmed by the arbitral tribunal in 2016 to be part of its EEZ, contrary to PRC claims. Even recent actions, such as the BrahMos missile deal with India in December 2021, have continued this trend.
Vietnam, by contrast, has really been quite cautious in recent years, though there is mixed evidence about the extent to which its behavior has been shaped by China’s coercion and assertiveness. Diplomatically, Vietnam was much less vigorous in 2020 in terms of pursuing the internationalization of the issue than it was in 2010 while chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), though that may have been due to Covid-19’s dominance of the agenda at those meetings. Still, actions that Vietnam had taken in 2010, such as inviting Hillary Clinton to the ASEAN Regional Forum to declare the South China Sea as a U.S. national security interest, were not matched in 2020. On the substantive level, we have seen multiple examples of Vietnam backing down from oil and gas exploration projects. In 2018, for example, Vietnam’s Spanish partner, Repsol, capped the exploratory wells that it had drilled on Vietnam’s continental shelf inside the nine-dash line, following threats from the PRC.
Overall, in the case of Vietnam, we have seen more restraint since 2016. That said, its position has been far from capitulation. In other parts of the South China Sea, Vietnam has pressed ahead with oil and gas developments on its continental shelf and inside the nine-dash line. Perhaps its position is more of a balancing act, or a quid pro quo: Vietnam caps the wells in one block, which may be the less promising one, in exchange for the PRC ceasing to coerce the country or invoke trouble over another block that is more promising and important to its energy security.
One of the trends highlighted in your report is a shift away from the use of force and an increased focus on coercion through the establishment of civilian administrative control in the South China Sea. Why are these three claimants, especially China, seemingly moderating their use of force in favor of gray-zone tactics?
In the report, use of force includes both direct military attacks on another state and the direct seizure of the disputed possession. Why has it become less of a trend in the last twenty years? One factor is economic interests. Regional states, including China, have prioritized economic development. In order to maintain political stability, no one wants to put economic development at risk, and therefore these claimants want to steer clear of the threshold of military conflict.
Institutions and norms also play a role. The Declaration of Conduct between China and ASEAN included a provision to not occupy currently unoccupied features, which coincided with the end of the scramble for land in the South China Sea. Since occupation of those features is one of the most conspicuous and undeniable examples of a state taking something that another state is claiming, the adherence to that agreement has removed a large source of instability. However, the overall environment of stability has also created the conditions for more contestation below that threshold. Where countries cannot advance their interests by simply seizing more control of islands and atolls, the incentive for doing so in other ways increases.
The third reason for the move away from direct use of force is the development of the specific gray-zone capabilities that I mentioned before in relation to the case of China. China has rolled out a fairly systematic gray-zone strategy, using long-range high-endurance patrol boats and other capabilities. This has in turn sent the other claimants scrambling to develop corresponding gray-zone strategies. But trying to match China in the gray zone has been a challenge for the Southeast Asian claimants, as the report shows.
How can a more nuanced understanding of state behavior inform crisis management and de-escalation measures in the South China Sea among all claimants, as well as progress on key agreements such as a code of conduct?
A future crisis in the South China Sea will likely not start as a direct U.S.-China confrontation. A more likely scenario is that the United States and other nonclaimant countries with interests in the area, such as Japan, Singapore, India, and Australia, will have to determine appropriate responses to contingencies involving China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
For instance, on Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines has maintained a detachment of marines on a ship since 1999. The ship is disintegrating and needs to be reinforced structurally, but the PRC has set construction on Second Thomas Shoal as a red line. This situation is likely to prompt a showdown in the next few years that will require the responses of key regional countries. It will be crucial for the United States and these nonclaimant countries to have the analytical tools to understand and track the types of behaviors that are occurring in the South China Sea, the distinctions between different behaviors, what constitutes coercion and the status quo, and the issues that are driving those behaviors so as to respond appropriately to a crisis.
The data presented in the report could also help inform the region’s policymakers as they try to decide what the status quo actually is and what behaviors should be allowed or prohibited, including under a possible future code of conduct for the South China Sea. At the current time, I am not hopeful of progress on a meaningful agreement, which is a sentiment that I have come across widely within the region. The fact that a code of conduct may be a potentially legally binding document would not ensure that it is an effective tool in managing and de-escalating crises. “Legally binding” is not a particularly meaningful category for the PRC, whose actions are the main driver of tension in the South China Sea.
Andrew Chubb is a Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University and a Fellow of the Asia Society’s Center for China Analysis. A graduate of the University of Western Australia, his work examines the linkages between Chinese domestic politics and international relations. More broadly, Dr. Chubb’s interests include maritime and territorial disputes, strategic communication, and the Chinese Communist Party’s political propaganda.
The interview was conducted by Darlene Onuorah, a Project Associate with the Political and Security Affairs group at NBR.