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Today the Spratlys and Paracels, Tomorrow…

By James Przystup Strategic Insights

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Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Photo By: Reuters
VIRIN: 200423-D-BD104-001

On April 20, the South China Morning Post reported that China, taking cynical advantage of the world’s absorption with the devastating effects of the Corona virus, moved unilaterally to challenge the existing international order in the South China Sea. It proclaimed two new administrative zones over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Both are regions of contested sovereignty.

Beijing’s announcement again underscores China’s contempt for the existing international order and its determination to establish a China-centric order in the Indo-Pacific region. But we’ve seen this contempt before. In 2016, China disregarded the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration that denied Chinese claims in the South China Sea. So, this is nothing new. And we should expect more to come – next up, declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the newly created administrative regions.  We’ve seen this before with China’s declaration of an ADIZ over the East China Sea in 2013.

And it’s not that we have not been warned of the “gathering storm.”  In its 2018 National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration found the international order “resilient but weakening,” challenged by what it called two “revisionist” powers, China and Russia.

Earlier, the 2017 National Security Strategy found China’s economic inducements, investment strategies and military modernization aimed at undermining “regional stability” and limiting “U.S. access to the region” while providing “China with a free hand there.”  China ultimately seeks to establish “Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”

China has made clear its intentions and is acting on them.

In 2014, President Xi set out his New Asian Security Concept. It seeks to move Asia from zero-sum competition to “win-win” outcomes. Xi’s concept will subvert regional security cooperation in the name of letting the people of Asia solve Asia’s problems. Xi’s remarks represent a diplomatic velvet glove that is not very convincing. Bilahari Kausikan, former Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, commenting on China’s “win-win” concepts, observed that they “are no longer taken at face value, if they ever were, except perhaps by the terminally naïve or irredeemably corrupt.”

At the same time, Xi bluntly reinforced the iron fist by telling the Politburo’s study group on maritime policy that China would never “give up our core national interests” and “resolutely safeguard our country’s maritime rights and interests.”

True, Xi’s various policy statement can be taken as merely aspirational. They do, however, define a direction, and, as underscored by the April 20 announcement on the Spratlys and Paracels, will be given operational attention when opportunities, like the Corona virus distraction, present themselves.

So what is to be done?

First, Washington must recognize that responding to the challenge posed by China, today in the Spratlys and Paracels, and, longer-term is not an America only problem. It will require concerted international efforts and involve key international institutions.

For example: The United States should stress multinational responses and not cede easy wins at the United Nations and its related institutions, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, where the Trump administration successfully thwarted China’s bid for leadership. Over the years, China has advanced its standing in various international institution to the detriment of U.S. leadership. Allowing it free rein inside such institutions allows China to set new norms and regulations

For example:  The World Trade Organization (WTO). If the United States is to successfully address the key structural issues posed by China’s state driven economy, it will require policy coordination with the European Union, Japan, the Republic of Korea Australia, etc. to challenge China’s continuing “developing country’ status in the WTO. Multilateralism is not a four-letter word.

At the same time, it will require a refocusing on alliances, which have been the foundation of U.S. leadership in Europe and East Asia over the past seven decades. President Trump is right to call for greater support from our allies, but to cast requests for greater host-nation support as payment for protection is not the way to keep long-standing friends or positively influence those not so favorably inclined to the United States. In short, alliances are not transactional instruments, rather institutions for mutual security that reflect a sense of shared democratic values and norms.

This will also be a testing time for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which claims centrality in the region’s security architecture. How will it respond to China’s Paracel and Spratly challenge and its clear disregard for its commitment under the 20002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea?  Calls for dialogue and peaceful resolution of disputes will fall on deaf ears in Beijing.

Finally, our alliances and regional strategic partnerships must be the foundation of a concerted effort, led by the United States, to push back against China’s on-going efforts to unilaterally change the status quo and incrementally chip away at the existing international order.  This is a long-term strategic challenge of the first order.  We need to step up now.

Former Attorney General John Mitchell once remarked “watch what we do, not what we say.”  In China’s case, we need to do both.  What Beijing says is predicate to what is does.


Dr. James J. Przystup is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Institute for National Strategic Studies, at the National Defense University (NDU).  The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy of NDU, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.