Michael Swaine on the Spratly Islands and the South China Sea

Dr. Michael D. Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is an analyst in Chinese security studies, specializing in Chinese defense and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. He has authored several books and journal articles in these areas and advises the U.S. government on Asian security issues. He was interviewed by Christina Yoh '18 and Isabella Speciale '17 on Nov. 12, 2015.

What is the history of the Spratly Islands, and how was China’s “nine-dash line” introduced?

Dr. Michael Swaine: The history of the Spratly Islands goes well back. They were first discovered, of course, centuries ago. Are you interested in just the Spratly Islands or both the Spratly and the Paracel Islands?

Whatever you think has the greatest implications with what’s going on in the region now.

Well, right now the one with the greatest implications is certainly the Spratly Islands, although the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands have both been regarded as part of the same set of contested islands by and large in the South China Sea. In any event, all of these islands were known centuries ago, and to some degree explored. The Chinese, of course, have references to very early historical documents that make mention of these islands in various ways. But they never really became a serious issue until the end of the Second World War, and that was because the islands had been administered by the Japanese during their occupation of much of the region, and after the Second World War they were designated to be returned, and the Republic of China at the time was a country that had the strongest motivation to reclaim the islands, having regarded them as part of the Republic of China territory since the 1940s. And indeed the “nine-dash line” was developed by the Republic of China to designate that country’s claim to the islands, reefs, etc. within the South China Sea.

There was a very illuminating article that was written recently that appeared in the journal Modern China, by a fellow named Chris Chung at the University of Toronto who got access to the archives of the Republic of China, regarding the “nine-dash line,” and he analyzed them in great detail and he shows that the concern at the time was, with the Japanese surrender, that the Republic of China reestablish their claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and other land features, and prevent the French, who were at that time still in control of Vietnam, from achieving dominance over those islands. And so the “nine-dash line” was a way of indicating the Republic of China’s claims to land features. There was little, if any, discussion at that time about the waters of the South China Sea; it was all about the land features. So that’s how the line became an issue, and of course this claim was carried over to the PRC regime. When the PRC government established control over the mainland in 1949, they took on the same Republic of China claims to the South China Sea. But they did not clarify what exactly the “nine-dash line” meant. And to this day the Chinese government has not clarified what the “nine-dash line” means. There have been statements, I think one statement only by the Foreign Ministry to the effect that the “nine-dash line” is intended to indicate China’s sovereign control over the land features in the South China Sea and adjoining waters, and also to indicate China’s historical rights in the South China Sea. Exactly what those historical rights consist of in relation to international law, for example, the Chinese government has never clearly stated. So the “nine-dash line” continues to remain as a part of what the Chinese claim is in the South China Sea, but it remains also undefined.

Although you’ve touched on this a little bit, their historical incentive to essentially prevent the French from occupying the territory or reclaiming it from Japan, aside from that, what are some of the main incentives or purposes of China trying to stake these claims in the South China Sea? Would it be territorial? Desire for natural resources? Purely an issue of sovereignty? What in your opinion is probably the main incentive or purpose?

I think the main issue has become one of national sovereignty, territorial sovereignty and the connection to Chinese nationalism. It’s seen as an issue that again is one of these unresolved questions that have resulted from the end of the Second World War and the Cold War. In the case of Taiwan, for example, it still represents an indication of the unresolved territorial issues that came out of the period of imperialism when China was occupied in part, and at the mercy of imperial powers. And the South China Sea islands represent the restoration of Chinese rights that emanates from that era. So it feeds into the whole period of the century of humiliation that the Chinese received at the hand of imperialist powers. And it is also, I think, a reflection of China’s growing confidence. It has a greater capacity to exert influence over these offshore issues, beyond continental China, and so there is great desire on the part of many Chinese that China reestablish control over these areas in their view. So I think it plays very strongly into Chinese nationalism. I think there are secondary concerns or objectives on the Chinese side as well. Economics is part of it, since there is some indication of significant oil and natural gas deposits in the South China Sea. And given the substantial fishing and other maritime resources in the area, there certainly is a strong incentive for countries to establish control over areas that might be able to generate these kinds of resources and that’s not just the Chinese, but the Vietnamese as well, and the Philippines, the Malaysians, the others that are also vying for control over all or part of these islands, so I think that the economic dimension to this is also important. It became increasingly more important after they discovered oil and natural gas in some areas. The Chinese have, what many experts regard as, overly inflated, or inflated, estimates of what the potential is in oil and natural gas in the area, but nonetheless they’re there. So it’s another factor that plays into all of this. And I suppose a third factor from the Chinese perspective that plays into this is, to some degree, is strategic. And that involves China having the capacity to extend its own defense capabilities beyond its continental borders, in particular beyond the Hainan Island, to give it some greater defense and depth against potential threats that might arise from the South China Sea area, by whatever countries. So there is arguably some kind of strategic dimension to this as well. Although I wouldn’t put this above the other two that I've just mentioned.

So you mentioned that there’s economic benefits to the islands, so obviously other countries are going to be interested as well. How have China’s actions in that region affected its relationship with other Asian nations? Specifically, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have all expanded territorial claims on these islands, too. What is it about China’s policies that is particularly threatening to them?

Chinese policies are of concern to them for a couple of reasons. One is because the Chinese have a very expansive claim to the area. It is clearly that they claim undeniable sovereignty over all of the land features in the area, and in fact that includes some submerged features, they have claimed sovereignty over submerged features, reefs, that are never above water – that, under international law you can’t really claim sovereignty over. That put flags on the ocean bottom in places. So it’s got that kind of more categorical tendency that, I think, worries a lot of other countries in the area. They're not sure about what the “nine-dash line” means — could this actually lead to efforts to exclude the area from foreign involvement in various ways, which could have economic and strategic implications. So they're worried about that. It’s basically the size and scope of the Chinese demands, although the Vietnamese claims are pretty close to what the Chinese claims are. The Vietnamese have very expansive claims over Paracels and the Spratly Islands. Those two countries have the largest claims among the claimants. The other claimants claim smaller subsets of areas.

And the second reason why there’s so much concern about the Chinese is simply because they’re bigger and they're more capable. They're growing. They're acquiring greater naval and air capabilities that give them a greater potential to actually exert control over a lot of these areas. So on that basis they have the capacity to make good on some of their claims and to challenge the counter-claims of other counties. And that’s worrisome, because that plays into the nationalism of these other countries if they’re seen to be subjugated by Chinese pressures. Then of course it puts pressure on the governments concerned in these other countries. The Chinese have a policy of peaceful negotiation, resolving the issues through that process, a notion of joint development. They agreed to the Declaration of Conduct, which was agreed upon by China and ASEAN countries in 2002. So, the Chinese have made statements that indicate that they want to have, and this has been repeated many times by Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping, that they want to negotiate a peaceful mode of dealing with these controversies and then ultimately a peaceful resolution over time. But the Chinese want to do this on a one-to-one basis. They want to do it through bilateral talks with each of the claimants. And the other countries, being smaller countries, fear that this puts the Chinese at an unacceptable advantage because China is so large and will be able to exert greater pressure individually against the other countries involved. So that’s a concern as well for these countries.

Now, the United States has a separate set of issues that relate to this but are not entirely the same. The United States wants to see, as it has said many times, it wants to see a peaceful handling of this issue between China and these other countries. It doesn’t want to see coercion or intimidation used. It doesn’t want to see a militarization of the South China Sea. And it doesn’t want to see an infringement on freedom of navigation. It wants to see these issues addressed on the basis of international law, and the concern there is that China could ultimately use its stronger position to flout international law, restrict freedom of navigation in what the U.S. would regard as illegal ways, and set precedents there that would be extremely bad for other areas of the world, not just China, not just Asia. Also that it could be used by China in ways that strategically might threaten the ability of the United States to move freely in the area. And also could increase the chances of military conflict if the area were militarized. So, the United States has a combination of concerns with regard to China. Of course China is the main concern because China is the biggest. China has the most ambitious claims. China has the greatest capacity to make good on its claims. And China has positions that are at odds with the United States over freedom of navigation, and some ambiguities at the very least with the United States over issues of interpretation of territorial waters and the sovereignty of specific land features, etc.

How has the South China Sea dispute affected China’s relations with ASEAN and its member countries?

There’s a natural tension within the ASEAN countries over this; not all of the ASEAN countries have claims in the South China Sea; a subset of them do. Some ASEAN countries are more concerned about China than others are. The South China Sea issue acts as kind of wedge or a divider amongst ASEAN states because it pits them against each other, some of them at least: Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam. So it undermines the unity of ASEAN. And China’s position, if it becomes sufficiently threatening to the other claimants, however, could serve as a unifier for other ASEAN countries as well. But it hasn’t done that yet. It hasn’t had that effect. So the South China Sea claims complicate China’s relations with ASEAN. The dispute makes it more difficult to have cordial relations with ASEAN; it undermines China’s efforts to improve cooperation with ASEAN over all kinds of issues – economic and others. So it really significantly complicates the objectives of the countries actually on both sides, both China and the ASEAN countries, in trying to establish closer political and economic relations, and to reduce the propensity and possibility of military competition and military tension in that part of the world. So it’s probably the most serious threat to cooperative relations between China and ASEAN.

Recently, China has been building port facilities, military buildings and air strips on the islands. What are the security implications in having these facilities on China's side but also internationally?

As I mentioned before that the implications of this are that China could use these islands — these artificial islands — that they've been developing in the Spratly Islands to extend their military reach in the area and to be able to achieve greater degrees of political, diplomatic leverage over other countries in the area for a variety of reasons; to intimidate them in terms of fishing in the area, intimidate them in terms of their control over the islands that they do hold, provide a stronger degree of leverage on Chinese part to press these countries to accept Chinese terms and conditions, and also could provide the basis for some kind of actions by China in the future to try to militarily remove other countries’ forces from the islands and reefs that they have occupied in the area. China's position in the Spratly islands is a minority position. That is to say, it does not have control over the most islands in areas in the Spratly Islands — the Vietnamese do by a significant amount. The Chinese position is relatively weak in the area, and that's one reason why the Chinese have been building these artificial islands; because they want to establish the capacity to be able to actually put assets of various types, civilian and military, on these islands, to increase their presence and exert greater influence over the area. Now, the United States is very concerned, for the reasons that I've just mentioned, about the implications of all of this. What is going on has the implications for regional stability; it has implications for intimidation, adherence to international law, and possibly implications for the strategic position of the United States in Southeast Asia and in the South China Sea area. So all of these issues are bound up in the development of these facilities that the US has been concerned about.

The U.S. argues that its freedom of navigation operations are justified under international law. This perspective would justify the deployment of the U.S. warships and airplanes close to China’s artificial islands. But the Chinese see these operations as provocative. In your opinion, what do you think is the real intent of the U.S. in deploying this military assets and justify this action as freedom of navigation?

I think the intention of the United States in running this freedom of navigation operation here is to communicate to the Chinese and to all others that the U.S. regards the international legal position of what international law says as being the basis for how foreign navies can operate in this area where there are contending claims and there are new islands being created. It's not just the Chinese who are creating and expanding islands, although the Chinese are doing it on a larger scale — the Vietnamese have done it, the Malaysians have done it, other people have done it as well. But the U.S. point is primarily to rebut any effort by China to try to exert control over what's regarded as innocent passage or the free transit by ships, especially foreign military ships in waters close to these islands. There is a concern that China is basically disregarding international law in trying to challenge or prevent or create preconditions for foreign militaries to operate in waters around these islands and for foreign militaries to transit even the territorial waters it claims. This reflects the differences between China and the United States about this issue. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the United States and many other countries take this position. If a rock is above water at high tide, then it can have a twelve-nautical-mile sea, so it can have territorial waters for twelve nautical miles. If it's an island, that is to say, it can support habitation, it can have an exclusive economic zone for an additional 200 miles. The Chinese believe that any foreign military operating in an exclusive economic zone must get the permission of the coastal state in order to operate in that zone even if it's just a transit. The Chinese also believe that even if you're just running an innocent passage transit across at territorial sea, you also need to at least notify if not get permission from the coastal state. The United States rejects both of those positions. In other words, it does not believe that China has a legal right to demand that foreign militaries get permission before they move across an exclusive economic zone or before they conduct innocent passage across the twelve-nautical-mile sea. So these freedom of navigation exercises by the United States have been designed to express the American disagreement over the Chinese position and to deter the Chinese from making these kinds of claims with respect to these islands, whether they were officially created or not, in the South China Sea that China occupies. It's a kind of a complicated argument, and the United States has done a very, very poor job of explaining it publicly, but that is essentially what it is that these freedom of navigation operations are intended to accomplish. In addition to this, it's possible that the United States also wants to show China that it cannot claim any sort of privileged rights over any of the waters within the nine-dash-line other than clear territorial waters that it might have with relations to an island. In other words, it can't say the nine-dash-line gives it some kind of a privileged position to restrict foreign military operations, ships primarily, within the South China Sea. Part of that argument is legal. Another possible motive is that the U.S. does not want China to think that they can move toward establishing a no-go zone in the South China Sea for the American military.

The U.S. and China obviously disagree on the South China Sea, and the U.S. raised this concern when President Xi was here, but nothing was really changed by Xi’s visit. So do you think this conflict has progressed past the point of diplomacy? You said that the U.S. has done a poor job of explaining their views on this. Do you think diplomacy could have been better or should we be concerned by the risk of escalation when the U.S. operations continue?

I'm concerned about the risk of escalation, and I certainly think diplomacy could do better on both sides. The Chinese themselves have done an abysmally poor job of explaining their position and their claims in particular. As I said earlier, they haven't explained that at all in some cases such as the nine-dash-line. They haven't clarified at all what kinds of territorial waters, if any, they're claiming for their artificial islands either. They've just made a general statement that these changes will map these islands that such will not change the underlying legal status, but they haven't said what the underlying legal status is. Things are unclear on both sides, and they need greater clarity. I think there is a danger of escalation as long as this issue remains high on the public profile, the media continue to pay close attention to it and report on every little action in one way or another and depict every little action as being part of a zero-sum competition, which is exactly what the theme is in most of the media on this issue between China and the United States. As long as that is all still going on, then future actions that the United States might take in the way of freedom of navigation operation or the Chinese might take in the way of strengthening their presence in these islands, are all going to put pressure on both governments’ concern to show their resolve in defending their position and preventing the other side from gaining advantage. That's a dangerous situation when you're dealing with two major powers that have military capabilities like the U.S. and China do. It's not a benign situation.

Now, with that said, do I think it's a situation that is on the verge of conflict and escalation to military confrontation? No, I don't. I think the U.S. and China both understand the need to avoid getting into an escalation that leads to military conflict. They both recently agreed to memos of understanding and regulations that rule how their militaries should interact. They have indeed have created a greater degree of predictability and, to some degree, restraint in the behavior of the two sides in interacting over the issues over which they disagree. At least for the short to medium term, I don't see much likelihood that you're going to have an escalation of the situation to conflict, and I think, therefore, that it certainly is amenable to diplomatic management, but it needs to have more effective diplomatic management. There needs to be a greater emphasis on diplomacy and a de-emphasis on the use of military instruments by one side or the other to establish or sustain their position. There needs to be a much greater emphasis on trying to come to a code of conduct that's binding on the part of the powers concerned and try to get the Chinese to be more willing to talk to groups of countries.

What are some critical next steps in addressing the conflict? I think you've touched upon a lot of diplomatic strategies that should be implemented, but in your opinion, are there any tangible and real-time changes that can be made? Maybe in regards to current U.S. naval tactics. Are those beneficial or harmful?

I think that the United States needs to become clearer about exactly what its concerns are. I don't think it's been clear enough in defining exactly what its concerns are and how it's going to go about in trying to convey those concerns and defend its interests. I think the United States has two primary interests in the South China Sea; one of them is non-use of force, and the other one is freedom of navigation. I don't think the United States can prevent all forms of intimidation and coercion by any of the parties involved — I think this goes on to one degree or another all the time and in various ways. I don't think the United States has the capacity to deter this in an effective manner, but it can deter the actual use of force because that's more recognizable and measurable. The United States needs to focus on that. It needs to also focus on its concerns over freedom of navigation by clarifying exactly what it believes is acceptable or unacceptable in that area, and then it should focus on the real concern, which is the military dimension. Commercial freedom of navigation is not an issue. The Chinese are not going to obstruct commercial freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. It's all about the access of foreign militaries — the U.S. Navy in particular and its ability to operate. There has to be, in that regard, some degree of mutual understanding of each side's position and a level of mutual restraint because they're not going to be able to bridge the gap that currently exists between them in any permanent way. They have to establish rules of operation, rules of procedure that allow the two sides to express their views and positions without escalating into conflict. I think both sides need to sit down and talk much more effectively about that.

They need to also talk much more effectively about what is or is not militarization in the South China Sea because that's a big issue that remains undefined. To a certain extent, the Chinese are going to increase their presence in the area. This is not about land reclamation per se, and to some degree it's not about certain types of militarization. There are certain types of militarization that already exist. There are soldiers on these islands in different places already, there are some military weapons on these islands already; so to some degree, they've been militarized. The question is what types of future militarization are acceptable or not and why. That kind of discussion needs to occur on a much more concrete, much more granular basis. Part of that also involves discussions about claims. As I said before, the Chinese have been very vague about what their claims are exactly. This degree of vagueness in the future is going to lead people to make even worse case conclusions about Chinese motives and tensions. They will therefore act accordingly. The United States could very well be induced in one way or another to become itself more militarized in its approach to exerting influence in this area. It's an area where there needs to be much more detailed and ongoing consistent level of discussion between the U.S. and China, and then between the other claimers among themselves to iron out their differences and with the Chinese because unless the other claimants can't clarify their own differences and agree upon restraints among themselves, they're not going to reach agreements with the Chinese. All of that has to move forward, and there is enough room for diplomacy, but all sides need to stop with the general statements being made by spokespersons and the duelling positions of freedom of navigation operations versus provocative behavior. All this vague language has to become much more specific, and much of it has to occur on a private level, not on the public level. This issue should be taken off the public screen as much as possible and reduced to a much more private level to gain some degree over control or reduce the propensity for nationalism to drive it forward.

I think in your article, "The Real Challenge in the Pacific," you suggested deployment of U.S. military forces in neighboring Asian countries. Is that correct?

I said that if the Chinese don't clarify their claims and their intentions in a more credible way that the United States will have to make worst-case assumptions that operate, to some degree, on that basis, although not entirely, but it will have to hedge more than it would otherwise do. I said part of that hedging should be to improve its degree of military assistance to other countries in the area that are concerned about China's position and also to improve its own position in the area. But I also said that kind of action should be contingent on the Chinese themselves providing reassurances. If the Chinese can provide greater clarity and some greater reassurance about their views, on their claims, militarization and other critical issues, and reach some understanding with the United States, then the U.S. should not move forward with such strengthening of its military position. Because if the U.S. continues to do that regardless of what the Chinese say or do, then of course the Chinese are not going to have much incentive to listen to what the U.S. is saying, and they're going to have a greater degree of concern that what the U.S. is really about is just trying to counter the Chinese presence per se and that international law, freedom of navigation, and militarization are really not the issue. The issue is China's presence in the South China Sea, which the U.S. wants to remove, and that's not a conclusion that the U.S. should want the Chinese to draw. The U.S. has taken no position on who has sovereign authority over these islands and reefs in the South China Sea. I do not believe it's in the interest of the United States to position itself to convey to the Chinese, much less act toward the Chinese, as if their presence in the South China Sea is unacceptable because they're going to strengthen such presence.

Articles mentioned:

Chung, Chris P.C. “Drawing the U-Shaped Line.” Modern China, 11 Aug. 2015.

Swaine, Michael D. “The Real Challenge in the Pacific.” Foreign Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, Inc., 27 Apr. 2015.

Isabella Speciale CMC '17Student Journalist
Christina Yoh CMC '18Student Journalist
Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *