Strategic Stakes and Consequences of China, Sars-CoV-2, and South China Sea in Global Security Order

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First published by Global Village Space on 02 May 2020, albeit with a different title.


The current Sars-CoV-2 (COVID-19) has been challenging the global security order in unintended negotiation whether to maintain or revamp the status quo of global security order. From the onset on COVID-19 since the last quarter of 2019, it has already presented negotiators with new rules and new players even from the unexpected actors. The pandemic has not only wreaked havoc the economic tendencies of each state, but also showed a number of parameters of negotiation that have remained fairly constant throughout the transition (crisis, collation building, mediation, issue linkages, and related factors and indicators).

The determination of national interest has been greatly complicated for governments, democratic and non-democratic alike. For the democracies of the world, diplomatic agenda setting is highly subject to strong domestic pulls; for the non-democracies, deliberations are clearly influenced by international and public opinion. In the contemporary process, it is also clear that culture and identity play greater roles in shaping negotiation positions and moves, as manifested in the application of new techniques such as culture-based mediation and track-tow facilitation.

Strategy and Negotiation of China

Wide-ranging issues in China’s national security strategy[1] defy adequate assessment by a narrow focus on China’s national defense. From November 2019 to April 2020, the COVID-19 and its spectators witnessed parallel changes both in China’s view of itself and its place in the world vis-a-vis its relations with its neighbors. It has seen a growing clash between old virtues and new status, a transformation in China’s strategic orientation from inward-looking and self-sufficient to outward-looking and coordination-oriented, and the emergence of divergent patters of Chinese sate behaviour ranging from prudent and accommodating to assertive and inflexible.

The challenge, however, is the impossibility to read China’s national security strategy, or that of any other country for that matter, in official documents and on that basis form an assessment of the state’s strategic practice. Key elements of national security strategy are always hidden from the public eye. In U.S, context, it is a good departure point for understanding the essential elements of a particular national security strategy because strategy is developed during the course of political practice. As pointed out by Zhang Qingmin in his paper “China’s Diplomacy in Its Grand Strategy (2010),” China’s strategy is based on different dynamics. To a large extent, Chinese strategy is based principles that guide the interaction between key actors. For this reason, the departure points for this analysis of China’s national security strategy are the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence – mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in the internal affairs of others, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence- the and the way in which these principle have framed Chinese strategic thought and practice since the days of Mao Zedong.

Chinese’s national security strategy is characterized by a dialogue between coexistence and nationalism, each of which holds very different implications for Chinese aspirations and behaviour. Coexistence was born out of the concern of the newly established People’s Republic of China in the 1950s to carve out an independent position at the vanguard on the developing world. It points to a China that will define its interests in accordance with the common interest of states in peace and security, and will further its interests by means of persuasion and compromise as part of its inward and later on outward-type of negotiation. The nationalist element in China’s security strategy reaches back to nineteenth-century Western imperial invasions, which brought Chinese civilization to its knees through a series of encroachments upon Chinese territory. This period has since settled in the Chinese national consciousness as a time of injustice and shame that has never been adequately rectified.

Moreover, the nationalist elements points to a China that will further its interest by means of imposition and coercion. Thus, we can say that the dialogue between coexistence and nationalism colored Chinese strategic thinking across the board, and causes China to simultaneously take on the appearance of a prudent power with modest international aspiration and a merciless power with inflexible territorial aspirations. What is not clear with China is its results-based action manifestation on how it addresses on the basis of understanding versus fear. Underneath China’s strategy is an “unrestricted warfare” principle as it uses all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.

South China Sea Dispute and Recent Flashpoint Amidst COVID-19

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Since the 1990s, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a strong power projection extended to the South China Sea. Clearly, the Navy is charged with the mission to safeguard China’s maritime interests of which the territorial claims are of central importance. In the Spratlys alone, the mission evolves contingency plans to capture and defend the islands that China claims to be part of its territory. In military terms, this will impose formidable demands, as any action along this line has to proceed for away from the mainland. It requires a high level of readiness, including training, organizing taskforces, logistic supply and an effective CI system. Early in the 1988, technical inadequacies forced the PLAN to confine this operation to a few small reefs in the Spratlys because China was then incapable for sustaining a protracted war with Vietnam.

In enhancing the capability for an armed conflict, the preparation for the Spratly has taken baby steps from the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet (SSF). This will bear the first brunt of any hostilities in the area. In the early 1970s, the SSF was the weakest among the three fleets (North, East, and South Sea Fleets), But since the 1974 Sinno-Vietnam clash in the Xisha (Paracel Islands), the fleet has grown on a par with, it not exceeding, the other two in terms of force levels. For instance, two of the three Yukang class LSTs, the largest and newest asset of China in the 90s, have been transferred to the SSF. The assignment to the fleet of the first ship of China’s new generation destroyers, Zhanjiang, indicates the extent to which naval authorities have recognized its strategic value. In addition, the personnel of all major combatants in the other two fleets have undertaken training in the waters around the Spratlys in order to be familiar with the situation of the South China Sea.

China’s marine brigade as attached to South Sea Fleet also reflects the PLA’s preparation for flashpoint actions rather than a large scale invasion. The brigade is to be used as a commando unit, underscoring the reason that its training has been heavily influenced by the U.S. marine programs.  One aspect of training has been survivability in various harsh situations, such as beach assault on a remote island. The brigade has also undertaken an all-members airborne program to strengthen its rapid response capability. By the end of 1992, 90 of the marines had passed the test of précised landing within a prescribed water area near an island in the South China Sea.

Generally, PLAN has launched several military project in the Paracel Islands and the reefs it occupies in the Spratlys. Yongxing Island (Woody), the largest in the Paracels, has become a military fortress with the naval detachment comprising tank units, AA batteries and high speed missile and patrol boats. There is also a CI center capable of processing satellite-transferred information, and a runway for fixed-wing aircraft has been constructed. This has reduced the burden of air coverage for a Spratly operation from the nearest Yulin base by several hundred kilometers, thus raising the PLAN’s rapid response capability for a Spratly incident.

Nevertheless, since the 1990s to 2020, China’s capability in coping with a conflict around the Spratlys will remain less than that of clear superiority. Its main surface combatants are vulnerable as they are exposed to closed land0based air assault. In contrast, China’s land-based medium range bombers cannot sustain an over the seas operation due to their small numbers. The same can be said for submarine capability. The activity of PLAN submarines is restricted by the problems of low survivability as most of them can only stay submerged for a limited period of time.

China’s Asymmetric Information Warfare Factor and Boomerang Effect

In the midst of COVID-19 controversy, it was reported that the virus’ origin is not plainly from Wuhan market but from an alleged laboratory located in the area studying bats for experiment. There were also allegations of this virus being a product of biological warfare program in the Wuhan Institute of Virology but majority of scientist and experts have denied its relation to genetically modified project.

This 2020 COVID-19 outbreak outside China is also evident in China’s experience in two (2) decades ago. In 1998 [2], floods have wreaked tremendous havoc on mainland China. One can imagine the severity of devastation. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has insisted upon continuing its longstanding practice – dealing off news of disaster. According to reports, after the destruction of leeves in Jinagzhou, the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee promulgated documents that severely restricted the broadcast media from reporting “NEGATIVE NEWS.” For this reason, two-thirds (2/3) of related coverage by China Central Television Station has focused on the news leading Party and national figures, and heroic performances in combating the floods. Very few solid facts concerning the disaster have been reported.

The directive from the Propaganda Department includes instructions to emphasize the heroic acts of the PLA and People’s Armed Police in flood-fighting and relief, while omitting concrete information about disaster conditions, especially deaths and the complaints of disaster victims. To achieve this, they not only limited interviews by the domestic media, but also did not allow foreign media to go out and interview. Later on, they did not give latitude, in order to procure donations from abroad.

Information regarding deaths, according to the CCP, is negative news. After the large-scale destruction of leeves in Jiangzhou, China on the evening of August 4, the Propaganda Department immediately issued a prohibition of the reporting of negative news. Therefore, relevant parties have remained silent regarding death figures, and when asked, they put on a false front, twisting negative news around to look positive.

On the current COVID-19 tirades in global scale, the effect has turned into legal challenge. U.S. President Trump suggested is seeking lawsuit against China for the latter to give “substantial” compensation for China’s unreliable moves in handling, if not containing the virus since Wuhan outbreak.

China’s Unstoppable Maritime and Territorial Pedal in South China Sea

On 9 April, the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo[3] told the foreign ministers of ASEAN that China was taking advantage; while the world was preoccupied with the pandemic, China is expanding its reach in the South China Sea. To quote the US Secretary, “Beijing has moved to take advantage of the distraction.”

Meanwhile, on 6 April, China’s surveillance vessel also rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat. China said that had been fishing illegally near the disputed Paracel islands. Chinese government survey ship, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, was first spotted off Vietnam and then started tagging an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas. The Malaysian ship was flanked by more than 10 Chinese vessels at one point in an attempt to intimidate the crew and encourage it to cease oil exploration work.

The Vietnam incident was reminiscent of the ramming of a Filipino boat by a Chinese vessel last June 12, 2019. That incident had left 22 fishermen stranded at sea for hours before being rescued by a passing Vietnamese ship.

On the other hand, in response to the recent sinking, the US state department issued a statement condemning the incident and calling on China “to remain focused on supporting international efforts to combat the global pandemic, and to stop exploiting the distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea”.

Furthermore in the Philippines, the Chinese government opened two research stations on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) and Zamora (Subi) reefs last March 2020. Accordingly, two of China’s seven man-made military bases in the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.[4] Subsequently, Chinese military transport plane was also spotted on Kagitingan Reef in the same month.

With regard to the specific timing for initiatives, it was possible that steps taken in recent months by other claimants precipitated a response. For example, Vietnam recently sent a protest note to the UN; in December, Malaysia notified the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf about plans to extend its rights in the South China Sea beyond 370 kilometers from its baselines; Vietnamese fishing boats continue to operate in the Paracels; and Malaysia has been searching for oil in waters that China considers its own.

In the Philippines, the government filed two diplomatic protests against China on 22 April 2020 for pointing a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship last mid-February. Per report, Chinese corvette readied its gun control director at BRP Conrado Yap (PS-39) near Rizal (Commodore) Reef in the West Philippine Sea . This April, China also declared declaring a Philippine territory as part of Hainan province. Accordingly, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs announced on 18 April that the State Council had approved the establishment of the Paracel (Xisha) and Spratly (Nansha) in the South China Sea as districts under Sansha city. The Paracel administration will be based on Woody Island, also known as Yongxing Island, while the Spratly administration will be placed in the Fiery Cross Reef, referred to as Yongshu Reef in Chinese. To this effect, the Philippines claimed that it is a violation of international law and the country’s sovereignty.

Later on, despite the newly released music video entitled “One Sea / Iisang Dagat” from China Embassy to Philippines to promote its support for neighbors battling COVID-19 particularly in the Philippines, it has backfired against China as it at been attracting a flood of public criticism and an online petition.

For Michael C Davis, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, China has long understood that international law is basically a contested space and if they put forth a very questionable position long and often enough they have the chance to make it so.

However, China’s consistent pushback even after the 2016 Hague Ruling was released is still present as counter-claim. In response to questions about the competing claims, Chinese foreign minister Geng Shuang[5] that China had “historic rights” in the region, and maintained “sovereignty and jurisdiction over the South China Sea in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Analysis

With all the negotiation and political dynamics happening in interstate and intrastate level, what is visible is that there was an initial cover-up by China with regard to the November outbreak which could have been remedied in open and multilateral dialogue among states and World Health Organizations (WHO). In this current pandemic and recent flashpoint in South China Sea, we have to draw lines between subtle distinction between terms trust and confidence.  In security, the word “trust” is used interchangeably with “confidence.”

In Chinese, xinren and xinlai correspond roughly to confidence and trust respectively and have different shades of meaning. Xinlai implies that someone is not only believable but also dependable. Whereas xinren emphasizes more on believability of someone or something.” Confidence and trust also imply different degrees of belief. Confidence is the accumulating process towards the final trust. While confidence is more procedural and with more psychological assurance (in the process of negotiation), trust is more conclusive with more assured action. And this has something not only in donation of COVID-19 financial assistance and Personal Protective Equipments (PPEs) but also on peace and order in South China Sea.

Second, the propaganda machine of China is still alive and it part of China’s negotiation tactics; making rounds of noise both in traditional and digital media. This helps China to position itself as powerful in strategic communication although it will eventually backfire to them. The effect of downplaying of truth and signifies unintended consequence on China’s economy. States like Japan and Unites States have already started pulling out its investment in China (i.e. manufacturing industry).

The major media outlets in China and allied states add also doubts in finding more concrete solution both in policy and health protocols due to sowing of maligned truth narratives (i.e. fake news, self-styled disinformation material in propaganda form and alike). This also raised more tension between China and United States instead of focusing on a more important issue like vaccine. The blame game between two superpowers also controls the strategic communication of various states except the states that do not care so much with the continued clash or words. In other words, the information is still only as helpful or good as those assigned to interpret its policy implications. Too much information, in the age of internet, is a danger as well.  It seems clear that influencers and third party users in blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and even printed platforms greatly take advantage efforts to gauge public opinion in the midst of political tumult.

And lastly, the presence of China-made facilities is another indication of China’s unceasing operations as the world is being gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. China, indeed, takes all necessary measures to safeguard its imagined territory in the South China Sea. For China, any country that attempts to deny China’s sovereignty, rights and interests in the South China Sea in any form, and to reinforce their claims would be illegal despite legal value in international law. Probably, the effective ideology of protracted warfare has really instilled to its constituents on pushing for a more coercive method while the global citizens’ eyes are plastered in the current pandemic. The bigger picture challenges on how China was able to position those infrastructures unmonitored as early as the first quarter of 2020.

Conclusion and Way Ahead

Nonetheless, as the new normal dawns, it is not possible to foresee all the forces that will shape its international relations, laws, diplomacy as over-arching political security order compels. The larger role now afforded non-state entities / bodies both well and ill: for all of the citizen groups now at work on health and development issues, crime and drug syndicates, broadening or democratization of the diplomatic arena will continue at a rapid pace. Moreover, it is clear the technology will play a prominent role. The process of connecting people around the world to one another will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for the diplomatic negotiation and negotiation process and of course, political and security balance.

Indeed, China will continue perfecting its claim to uninhabited features under a notion of historical title. Although it appears to be mostly fiction, this will always be its direction to have direct conflict with the facts and the claims of adjoining states in ASEAN. While China is attempting to rewrite international law and claim bits of underwater seabed hundreds of miles from its shores, the stakes for regional trust-building measures (TBMs)[6] toward China would be problematic. China has to promote confidence, reduce uncertainty, misperception, and suspicion in the region and lowering the changes of armed conflict. Finally, on the other hand, the Code of Conduct (CoC) must be fully established among ASEAN and China with secured Quadrilateral Security in Indo-Pacific on the side.

** The ideas and opinions stated herein do not reflect those of the publisher’s, and are not representative of any government or organization.

References:

[1] China and Coexistence: Beijng National Security Strategy for the Twenty-First Century, Liselotte Odgaard (2012)

[2] Chinese Communists Half Conceal Flood Inside China Mainland Journal. Vol. 20, NO 11, Issue No. 239) , November 1998, Institute of Current China Studies, Taipei, Taiwan

[3]China looks to disputed South China Sea as others focus on Covid-19, Peter Gold, April 26, 2020, Irish Times,  https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/asia-pacific/china-looks-to-disputed-south-china-sea-as-others-focus-on-covid-19-1.4238388

[4] Analyst says COVID-19 pandemic not slowing China conquest of South China Sea, Frances Mangosing, April 14, 2022, PDI, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/186834/analyst-says-covid-19-pandemic-not-slowing-china-conquest-of-south-china-sea

[5] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang’s Regular Press Conference on April 28, 2020, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/t1774380.shtml

[6] The Asia Pacific Security Lexicon, 2002, Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, Singapore

(This article is also published in Wuhan Update.)


The Authors 

Jumel G. Estrañero is a defense and security analyst and a university lecturer in the Philippines. He has completed the Executive Course in National Security at the National Defense College of the Philippines and has participated in NADI Track II discussions in Singapore (an ASEAN-led security forum on terrorism). His articles were published by Eurasia Review, Global Security Review, Geopolitical Monitor, Global Village Space, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Manila Times, Malaya Business Insights, Asia Maritime Review, The Nation (Thailand), Southeast Asian Times, and Global Politics. He is also one of the authors of the book entitled Handbook of Terrorism 2019 (Philippines); Disruptive Innovation: Duterte Legacy (Political, Economic, and Security Reference); and The Palgrave Macmillan Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies 2020 (Springer Nature). His specializations include geopolitics of the South China Sea, counter-terrorism/insurgency, cybersecurity, peacebuilding, strategic policy, and intelligence.

Maria Kristina D. Siuagan, one of the co-authors of the book “The Challenges Posed by Transnational Organized Crime and Terrorism: A Philippine Counterterrorism Handbook” and The Palgrave Macmillan Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies 2020 (Springer Nature). She is currently working as a national security specialist. A dedicated public servant, she had likewise worked as a writer and defense & security analyst for the Armed Forces of the Philippines and as an administrative officer at the Department of National Defense. A licensed nurse and a senior law student, with passion with law and national security, she is an online published author, whose works had appeared in Eurasia Review, Global Security Review, Geopolitical Monitor, Global Village Space, Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Malaya Business Insights, and Southeast Asian Times.


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