The following interview with Alexander Vuving was carried out in Honolulu on March 27, 2015 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on the South China Sea, ranging from the Chinese land reclamation activities to the legal case brought forward by the Philippines and Vietnam and the historic background of the territorial disputes, as well as on U.S.-China relations. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and providing the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.
South China Sea
The land reclamation activities by China are not a new phenomenon as other neighbors have built structures before as well. Yet some experts argue that while the land reclamation activities by China are happening on a different scale, they still don’t add strategic value in a conflict scenario that includes the U.S. Furthermore, from a legal perspective China cannot claim in a court of law that the rocks or reefs now constitute an island according to UNCLOS. Do you think there is a different rationale behind it or is it solely a power play by China?
We need to look at China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea from a different perspective than the conventional one where you focus on military and legal implications of these activities. China is pursuing a strategy that is based upon principles very different from the conventional Western thinking. The underlying philosophy behind the strategy can be found in Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”. The idea is to win without fighting. So while China obviously wants to win the game, it wants to achieve its objective without ever having to resort to military actions. The Chinese activities in the South China Sea, which range from the land reclamation to the use of People’s Liberation Army as well as non-military forces and lawfare, are all elements of this “winning without fighting” strategy. It is misleading if you look at what China is doing in the South China Sea from the perspective of military significance. It is similarly misleading to assess the land reclamation from a legal perspective given that the rocks China is building up are actually submerged rocks and not islands and therefore can not generate an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
What China is doing right now is setting up various positions in the South China Sea and building them into robust points of control. Starting from this, China wants to create a situation that will lead people to look at the propensity of things and think that China would eventually win the game. They might see it as beneficial not to provoke China, to avoid a clash and give up. So that is the underlying philosophy. China is reclaiming land and building dual-use facilities, which serve both military and civilian purposes. Harbors can be used by fishermen, but they can also be facilities for coast guards and military forces. Airstrips, which they can argue are needed to support the people on the island, are on Fiery Cross Reef about 3,000m long and thereby long enough for their fourth generation fighter jets.
The argument often made is that if China puts military assets on those small islands, they are going to be very vulnerable in a war scenario. But China is not preparing for war. It is preparing for peace, it is preparing for winning without fighting. Nobody wants to go to war with China and China is not preparing for the moment when you have real fighting across the ocean between those islands and the mainland of Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia. From the standpoint of a country such as Vietnam, Malaysia or the Philippines, the Chinese military bases and logistics hubs will be just across the sea. This significantly increases the ability of China to control the South China Sea, even though they don’t engage in a military clash and it changes the calculus by other claimants due to China’s increased dominance. Thereby, China is setting up the field so that it will psychologically change the strategic calculus of the nations in the region. If people look at the situation in the South China Sea ten years from now, what they see is an area full of powerful Chinese bases, logistics hubs and points of control, they can come up with the assessment that China is already the dominant force in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. is far away, it does not have any bases there so when it comes to real clashes, China will be able to overwhelm other claimants.
Another aspect are the legal implications of the island buildup. Obviously, if you look at Art. 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, it states that an island is a naturally formed area of land that is above water at high tide. If you want to have a 200 nm EEZ extending from this feature, it has to classify as such an island. It further has to be able to sustain human habitation on this island and an economic life of its own. Now what China is doing is to transform those rocks, which were mostly submerged decades ago, into islands. While a court may argue that these are not naturally formed as they have been submerged, it is going to be a very complicated and prolonged process. China is not preparing for that, it has from the very beginning refused to go to the court.
Instead, it is creating facts on the ground so that it can claim that these are islands and generate a 200 nm EEZ. There are previous examples for that. The Japanese build-up of the Okinotori features is a precedent for the transformation of rocks into islands and the claim of the 200 nm EEZ around that feature, even though China and South Korea see it just as a rock. I would not be surprised if China in the next few years would claim that these features are islands and that they have their 200 nm EEZ. It is not legal and other countries would be opposed to that and dispute it. However, until you get to a court you don’t have a final judgment on whether it is a rock or an island or whether they are entitled to the EEZ. So it is up to the most powerful player in the region to unilaterally enforce its claims. China is the most powerful nation and can theoretically do this.
This is very similar to the nine-dashed line. The nine-dashed line is perhaps the most ridiculous issue in international legal affairs. But China says it is there, and it enforces it. The U.S. State Department recently published a study on the nine-dashed line. One reason I see in that was to expose the inconsistency in China’s nine-dashed line as there are different versions of it. The comparison of those differing versions shows the world that this is even more ridiculous. But again it reflects a perspective, which is strictly legalistic. What China is doing is different and more practice and history oriented. It is also related to China’s argument about its historical rights and the historical waters in the South China Sea.
In that context, for an outsider it is always interesting to see what little role ASEAN actually plays, compared to what role it could potentially play. Do you see any chance that the change of leadership within ASEAN and the Chinese behavior in the South China Sea lead to a more active ASEAN?
ASEAN is deeply divided over the issues of the South China Sea. Recently Cambodia embraced the Chinese perspective on the South China Sea saying that the dispute is a bilateral issue between the claimants, not involving ASEAN. If you have member states such as Cambodia, Laos and Brunei that are increasingly influenced by China, then ASEAN is as a whole, as an organization that operates on the principle on consensus, unable to move an inch on these issue. With the increasing influence of China, ASEAN is going to be less and less relevant to the South China Sea issues. I can imagine some mini-ASEAN organized as a cooperation arrangement among some of the members of ASEAN like Vietnam, the Philippines and probably in the far future Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, which may have some impact on the disputes in the South China Sea. But ASEAN as an organization is going to be less relevant particularly because of this Division.
So the countries have two options: waiting for the tactic of China to materialize or they have to come closer to the U.S.?
The countries that are faced with the challenge of China in the South China Sea are not sitting idly by. Parallel with the Chinese salami-slicing in the South China Sea, we are also witnessing a similar incremental creeping rapprochement and coalition building among the states that are facing a similar Chinese challenge: Vietnam, the Philippines in Southeast Asia and the U.S., Japan and India outside of the region. But also countries such as Indonesia, Singapore and Australia, which share some interest with the core group in counteracting China’s expansion in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, are coming closer together. There is a general process of rapprochement among those countries, particularly the Philippines, Vietnam, the U.S., Japan and India.
Would you argue that there is any hope for the legal claims by the Philippines and Vietnam against China to have an impact or is it a more symbolic protest given that China is opposed to arbitration on these issues?
It will have some impact. Any legal challenge to China’s position in the South China Sea will have an impact, although we are not sure about the degree and timing of it. It is not just a symbolic gesture because it will influence the mainstream opinion in the world. It is important to count world opinion, meaning the mainstream opinion of the majority of people in the international media. If China is faced with a very unfavorable opinion, then that is putting pressure on China to react. As an example, in the legal process the Philippines has initiated, the court will decide on whether to make a verdict or not. Even though a potential verdict of the court would not be implemented by China on the ground, it would have an impact on world opinion. Whatever the court would say would be regarded as the truth or at least as the most authoritative judgment of the situation. If the court says that the nine-dashed line is illegal, China will face heightened pressure from world opinion. So even though China does not accept the court’s verdict and criticizes the court, for the rest of the world, China is on the wrong side of history. The same goes for any legal actions other countries could initiate against China in the South China Sea.
When looking at the region and what the claims are about, things come to mind such as fisheries, sea lanes of communication and fossil fuels. What do you think is the driver for the main claimants Vietnam, the Philippines and China?
This is very complicated. The prevalent narrative in the international press is that it is all about oil or resources. But I think this issue is highly complex because of the long history of dispute and because of the complexity of interests by the claimant states. Initially, the Philippines got interested in the Spratly Islands during the 1960s and 1970s. The initial primary interest of the Philippines was resource related, it was about oil. The story is similar for Malaysia, which also started to claim the Spratly Islands in the 1970s and 1980s after UNCLOS was signed and when the prospect for oil was good from Malaysia’s perspective.
But for China and Vietnam the story is much more complex. Vietnam for example can look back several centuries on their interests in the South China Sea. If you look at the documents of the Vietnamese Nguyễn dynasty of the 19th century, which addresses issues related to the Paracel islands, then you can see that their primary interest is security. They considered the Paracel islands as critical in the defense of the coastline back in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, when China turned to the South China Sea and developed primary interests in the small islands there and dispatched vessels to survey them, it was also primarily for security reasons. It was back then when Japan was sailing south through the South China Sea, expanding territories along the way. So China felt it should take control of those areas to feel more secure vis-à-vis Japanese expansionism in the Western Pacific. For both China and Vietnam the initial issue was security.
Then you have the age of oil, the discovery of resources, technologies that can explore the seabed and UNCLOS which gives you 200 nm off your coast that you own economically and where you can explore the resources. That area is in some cases bigger than the mainland of the littoral states. Therefore, they developed an interest in the resources. Oil also is a factor in there, but for China in terms of resources something different than oil and gas is much more interesting: ice crystals containing gas. With the current technology it cannot yet be commercially extracted, but in China there is the belief that methane hydrate can be the fuel source of the 21st century and the Chinese have discovered some areas in the South China Sea where they can mine this type of methane. The picture becomes more complicated with the discovery of new hydrocarbons and the development of technology.
Another factor that also fuels regional tensions is nationalism. When the South China Sea becomes a hot spot for conflict, it arouses patriotic sentiments, and indeed even for nations like the Philippines that don’t have nationalism as strong as the Vietnamese and the Chinese, they also developed some patriotic sentiments related to the South China Sea. The Philippines for example renamed the South China Sea into West Philippine Sea and for some Filipinos the Sea has become a symbol of their nation’s ability to stand up to China. It was already a symbol for the Vietnamese resistance to China. When you look at Vietnam’s long history of living with China, any kind of conflict with its neighbor easily became a symbol of nationalism and national identity, whereby the Vietnamese are very proud of being able to resist China. For China itself it is about territorial integrity, their ability to stand up to Western powers, to readdress the century of humiliation. So we have patriotic sentiments and symbolism that are being fueled by the South China Sea issue.
A fourth factor that is more pronounced for China is the strategic location of the South China Sea. There is a concentration of sea lanes of communication (SLOC) between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. 80% of the oil supplies to Japan and about the same to China, Taiwan and South Korea pass through the South China Sea, as does half of Asia’s commodity trade. For a global power such as the U.S., the South China Sea sits in the middle of the most critical SLOC between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. It is therefore not just about resources, nationalism and security or defense of the mainland. The South China Sea is very important for any country that aspires to become the main power in Asia. To paraphrase Mackinder, the father of geopolitics, whoever controls the South China Sea, will dominate East Asia. With the rise of Asia and the concentration of wealth, manufacturing and economic power in East Asia, whoever dominates this region will rule the world during the 21st century.
Analyzing China-U.S. relations, how do you assess the new type of great power relations that has been highlighted a lot in China?
I think this is a Chinese device to deceive the U.S. Initially it was proposed by China to reset and redefine the relationship with the U.S., to build an unprecedented relationship between the two most important powers in the world, different from the typical relationship between great powers during the past. The U.S. was lured to that device initially, but after a while it realized that this is just a trap. What China wants with this is not a new type of relationship, it is about the U.S. acknowledgement of China’s core interest. That is the idea behind the Chinese proposal. Obviously, China’s core interests as defined by China are something the U.S. cannot fully accept. The U.S. can accept some of it, but not all. Today, the U.S. no longer resorts to that narrative. You can hear Chinese leaders talk about it, but not any U.S. interlocutors.
Thank you very much for the interview.
This article was originally published by IR.ASIA at http://www.international-relations.asia/alexander-vuving-apcss/#_ftn5.
 More about Dr. Alexander Vuving at: http://www.apcss.org/college/faculty/vuving/.
 Additionally, one can look to the game weiqi as a means to understand China’s grand strategy behind this island building, as Dr. Vuving further pointed out in his article “China’s Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea” in The National Interest of December 8, 2014. The article is available here: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/chinas-grand-strategy-challenge-creating-its-own-islands-the-11807.
 Much of The Art of War is about how to outsmart the opponent without having to actually engage in war. To read more about this military strategy and how it is used today by China’s officials: http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/sun-tzu-and-the-art-of-soft-power/.
 The definition of an island and the resulting right to an EEZ according to Art. 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea will be the subject later on in this interview.
 More about the land reclamation on Fiery Cross Reef and an assessment of the situation at: http://www.janes.com/article/46083/china-building-airstrip-capable-island-on-fiery-cross-reef.
 Art. 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea can be accessed here: http://www.un.org/depts/los/convention_agreements/texts/unclos/part8.htm.
 An overview over the current state of the Okinotori Islands and the corresponding claims is given at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/19/business/energy-environment/growing-coral-to-keep-a-sea-claim-above-water.html?_r=0 .
 A first overview over the nine-dash line is given by the CFR here: http://www.cfr.org/china/south-china-sea-tensions/p29790.
 The U.S. State Department publication on Limits in the Seas (No. 143) “China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea” can be accessed here http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/234936.pdf.
 The issue of historic waters is also discussed in the previously mentioned State Department publication.
 More on Cambodia’s endorsement of China’s position that the South China Sea disputes cannot be solved through ASEAN: http://www.voanews.com/content/cambodia-publicly-endorses-china-position-on-south-china-sea/2694301.html.
 More on the arbitration case of the Philippines against China in this article: http://thediplomat.com/2015/03/philippines-counters-china-in-new-south-china-sea-case-submission/.
 For an overview over the natural resource potential expected in the South China Sea, refer to the website of the Energy Information Administration: http://www.eia.gov/countries/regions-topics.cfm?fips=scs.
 Methane hydrate presents as ice crystals with natural methane gas locked inside. They are found primarily on the edge of continental shelves where the seabed drops sharply into the ocean floor. For a map of potential reserves and additional information on this hydrocarbon, please go to: http://www.bbc.com/news/business-27021610.
 More about the methane hydrate potential in the South China Sea: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/8925cbb4-7157-11e3-8f92-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3XuwZ5c4F.
 After a standoff with China in the South China Sea, the Philippines renamed the waters off its coast into West Philippine Sea. More about this story: http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1035119/philippines-tags-coast-west-philippine-sea.
 Halfort Mackinder wrote in his book “Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction”: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”
 The new type of great power relations (新型大国关系) was the issue of many discussions including: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/142178/andrew-s-erickson-and-adam-p-liff/not-so-empty-talk and http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2014/12/05-chinese-pessimism-american-cynicism-great-power-li-xu.