Shaping an Effective South China Sea Policy: The Need for a New Intelligence Approach


2016-11-05 By Danny Lam

There are few territorial disputes as muddled as the South China Sea.

Republican China (ROC), despite its irrelevance from 1950 onwards, steadfastly maintained a claim – initially made in 1947 when the government was on the verge of defeat – to vast stretches of the seas in the 9, 10, or 11 dash line claim.   The People’s Republic of China, as a UN member, acceded to the UNCLOS II in 1982 and ratified it on 1994 with only minor active disputes despite the overlapping claims of many states in the region.

Something changed around Year 2,000 coincidentally with the rise of China as a great trading power and the recognition of the value of undersea resources in the South China Sea.

Concurrently, Chinese fishing fleets have expanded and became a major factor in the depletion of fisheries in South China Sea and around the world.

The People’s Liberation Navy and paramilitaries like the Chinese Coast Guard, Fisheries Patrols and “merchant” or “fishing” boats experienced explosive growth particularly after the reorganization of constabury units in 2013.  But there are significant regional differences.

Assets like oil drilling platforms to assert claims in the South China Sea.   Jin class submarines are primarily based on Hainan Island, vs. the Xia class submarine based at Laoshan.

Presently, China’s carrier is based in Dailian, but there are indications that a future Carrier base will be on Hainan island to house additional carriers under construction.

In parallel is the growth of the Chinese Merchant fleet, and acquisition of formal overseas bases and facilities.

Rational actor paradigms are generally problematic for net assessment.   Nowhere is there more true than in divining the intent of the PRC regime.

Western analyst’s weakness in local and regional knowledge as to the concerns, calculus and constraints faced by regional PLA/PLAN commands severely hamper the ability to make sense of these deployments.

In the past decades, there are many tantalizing hints of the weakness of Beijing and their loose grip on their local military regions that at times, resulted in contradictory policies being pursued by the central and local military commands that mirror the inability of Beijing to exercise a strong grip on their Provinces.

During the initial search for Malaysian Airlines MH 370, Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand were able to mobilize first.  PLAN and other vessels mobilized slowly, with several units from Shanghai rather than the plentiful assets operating in South China sea.

These patterns reflect the longstanding Chinese cultural norm “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.”

The power of Chinese central authority is limited to when it is directly watching / inspecting and utilizing their theoretically absolute power to force compliance.

At other times, it can be safely and legitimately ignored.

Visit any Chinese dominated area in Asia, and this belief is operationalized in the preponderance of illegal structures, unlicensed or unlawful businesses, and generally “illegal” behavior with respect to the letter and spirit of the laws.   Chinese law and regulations, in that respect, do not have the presumption of legitimacy in Western systems.

Central authority has little capacity to fully control or enforce the raft of rules and regulations even within Beijing.

To truly understand what is going on, one need to divine not just the formal assertions of the Central authority (Beijing), but the semi-illegitimate actions and aspirations of the local authorities which at most times, overpower the diktats of Beijing: as they did before Commissioner Lin tried to stop the formal opium trade.

Today, observers rarely question the official version of the cause of the first opium war as the Ching Court banning trade in narcotics then being humiliated by militarily stronger western powers.

Few western historians acknowledge that the pre-opium war British trade with China was widely supported by southern Chinese merchants who made fortunes form both legal and illicit trade at the expense of domestic inland Chinese opium producers.

From this perspective, the opium war was caused by a protectionist trade measure by inland Chinese opium producers who gained the ear of the Ching court against coastal southern Chinese merchants (compardors) allied with British merchants .   This would make for a messy reading of history before consideration of the longstanding role of Chinese secret societies in undermining Ching authority.

Chinese society is abound with secret societies, whose in its most illegitimate form are triads or criminal enterprises, but also exist as innocuous but often illegitimate societies that can be based on religion, politics, similar ethnic, regional, or professional ties.   All of these organizations exist in a state of semi-illegitimacy and in turn, exercise power with a subtle interplay with other (nominally illegitimate) authorities of the peasantry playfully referred to as the lao bai xing.

Hidden authorities are crucial in the maintenance of order in China, as is around the world.

Applying this approach to the South China Sea disputes, it is hard to see how the sea grabs is solely a product of Beijing policy to effectively unilaterally abrogate the UNCLOS treaty obligations of the PRC.

Local business interests, like the fishermen and other commercial interests, right to including the ship builders and their suppliers, that is benefitting from the naval buildup with business they would otherwise not have; and, the regional PLAN/PLA, the “Coast Guard” and “Fisheries Patrol” in the area are all major makers and executers of policy.

What about the criminal or semi-illicit enterprises engaged in piracy, extortion, smuggling, or illegal immigration that have extensive networks throughout Southeast Asia that no doubt play a key role in the disputes?

Or the competing grabs by all the formal and informal claimants?

Into this mix of competing authorities, demands on the Beijing regime of China to honor their UNCLOS treaty obligations and push back against Chinese activities like PLA/PLAN land reclamation and the building of bases on disputed territories have been at best, ineffective in moderating Chinese behavior at the local level.

Rare and occasional FONOPs by primarily US vessels and aircraft have had no impact and perhaps, made things worse by demonstrating the impotence of the US and allies in this policy area in establishing and maintaining a rules based order.

What this calls for is a different approach than the present strategy of parlee with Beijing as if Beijing is the sole and major problem for the South China Sea.

In order to develop a more nuanced and effective policy, the US and allies need to develop a far more granular and detailed picture of the non-Beijing actors in the policy area, whether it be the local branches of the PLA/PLAN, Coast Guard, Fisheries Patrol, or other units in the area, their ties to military owned or controlled businesses, and non-state actors.

Ideally, such expansion of the knowledgebase shall encompass actors from every other state in the area. But to do so will require a different skill set and allocation of intelligence resources.

Armed with better knowledge and information, the US will be able to forge a policy that cans precision target incentives and sanctions to support a UNCLOS compliant regime to all parties that matter in these disputes.

And not just Beijing.