The U.S., China, and the Geopolitics of the South China Sea
Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum
February 21, 2018
Cortez A. Cooper III is a senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School faculty. At RAND he provides assessments of security challenges across political, military, economic, cultural, and informational arenas for a broad range of U.S. government clients. He has served in the U.S. Navy Executive Service as the senior analyst for the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific, U.S. Pacific Command. As the senior intelligence analyst and Asia regional specialist in the Pacific Theater, he advised Pacific Command leadership on trends and developments in the Command’s area of responsibility. His 20 years of military service included assignments as both an Army Signal Corps Officer and a China Foreign Area Officer. In addition to numerous military decorations, the Secretary of Defense awarded Cooper with the Exceptional Civilian Service Award in 2001.
Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on the maritime domain and the countries of Southeast Asia. His research interests include the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism. He is the author of “The South China Sea in Focus: Clarifying the Limits of Maritime Dispute” (CSIS, July 2013) and coauthor of multiple works including “Building a More Robust U.S.-Philippines Alliance” (CSIS, August 2015), “A New Era in U.S.-Vietnam Relations: Deepening Ties Two Decades after Normalization” (CSIS, June 2014), and “A U.S.-Indonesia Partnership for 2020: Recommendations for Forging a 21st Century Relationship” (CSIS, September 2013).
Wenshan Jia (moderator) is professor of Communication Studies at Chapman University. He specializes in Communication Theory and Methods with emphasis on Intercultural/Global Communication, more specifically on communication between East Asia and the West. He held the Wang-Fradkin Professorship for 2005-2007, which is the highest award given by Chapman University for faculty research. He is the recipient of The Early Career Award from The International Academy for Intercultural Research, as well as several other awards for his scholarly publications. Jia has been acknowledged by student clubs at Chapman University for his contribution to global education and his impact on student academic experience. He often acts both as a professional reviewer as well as an expert on related media both at home and abroad.
Wenshan Jia: Thank you very much. Thank you, Jim, for inviting me as a moderator for today’s event. It’s a very important event. As you know that I’m next door to Nixon Library. And I’ve been a frequent visitor and taking advantage of all the resources from this library. When I was a child, back in China, I saw a Nixon picture in my school. It’s a picture of Nixon while he was visiting China. That was 1970s. It was very I never thought about working next door to Nixon Library. It’s just amazing. And here I am moderating this event.
We have two specialists today. And first one is Mr. Cortez Cooper Cooper III. Senior International/Defense Researcher at the RAND Corporation and a member of the Pardee RAND Graduate School Faculty. Let’s welcome him. Mr. Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based in Washington D.C. Give him an applause.
Now, the questions I received yesterday from Jim and I reviewed them, those are very well-established questions and they also sound very neutral and objective. And I noticed that this is obviously just the opportunity for the audience to know about the facts, objective information about the issue of U.S., China, and the Geopolitics of South China Sea.
The entire session consists of three parts. First is introduction. Part one is territory. Where is it? What is it? What is Nine-Dash Line? For example, all these pieces of facts flowing in the information. We need to get to know exactly what it is. We have a set of questions, eight questions here. Part two, resources in global trade. Part three, the military. Part two, we have about…part two, four questions. Part three, four questions, as well. So we’re gonna do a sort of a Q&A. So that it will be more interactive, more dynamic. We have two speakers. So the two, feel free to answer to the best of your knowledge about these questions.
Number one, how did each of you come to study Asia-Pacific affairs and the topic we’re about to discuss?
Cortez Cooper: Okay. First off, thanks, Dr. Jia. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s an honor to be at the Nixon Library. And I’m looking forward to the time with you. And thankfully, you started out I guess with the easier questions first. If I can remember far enough back to when I did come to study Asia-Pacific affairs and the topic we’re about to discuss. I guess I came to study Asia-Pacific affairs beginning in about 1988. I was in my 8th year in the military at the time. I was in the U.S. Army and was a Communications Officer serving in Europe, initially and sort of focused obviously, in that direction because at that time, there was such a thing as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic.
And so that was where I began looking abroad, not looking toward China at all. But I went to the Foreign Area Officer Program in the Army. And in 1988, began training and studying to begin looking toward China. It was a pretty fascinating time obviously to start looking at China. At that point, is that, you know, again, in the aftermath of a day that we celebrate today as an anniversary when Nixon went to China and China began opening up to the West and began the economic opening that in many ways after that would, you know, would change a lot of things and to include changing my life, I guess. So that’s when I began studying it.
And through the military career a few assignments that were focused on China in various respects. Then when I retired from the military in 2000, as my wife said, I had trouble holding down a job. I was in probably five different organizations throughout the years following 2000 before landing at RAND Corporation. And in all of those, I had some opportunity to look at China and the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific. In general, I guess the highlight, I would say of sort of those, some in government summit, in the private sector. Probably, the highlight would be time out in U.S. Pacific Command as the senior, the intelligence analyst looking at China and looking at the Asia-Pacific, and advising the Commander of Pacific Command in that regard, before then later coming back to Washington D.C. and continuing to work on China stuff.
Not a Southeast Asia expert. I am focused generally on more generally on China and the Chinese military. And I’ve been pretty busy of late because as many of you know, the Chinese military is in the most important and, you know, and most extensive reorganization, restructuring effort at least since the 1980s and maybe since the dawn of the People’s Republic. So I’ve been kind of busy with that. The good news is we do, in fact, have a South East Asia expert with us who will be able to clarify things that I may be unable to during the course of the discussion.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Great. Mr. Poling.
Gregory Poling: Yeah. So I’ve been working in Asia slightly less, a slightly shorter amount of time than Cortez Cooper Cooper has. But I started off as a China hand or thought I was China hand. I did history in undergrad, I spent time in China, I lived and worked, went to school there. When I decided to go back to graduate school and started studying international relations because the historians don’t get a lot of job offers other than to teach history. I somehow migrated south. And so I came into a master’s program thinking I was going to do China. And I decided that I found Southeast Asia more fascinating.
So if you approach China from the idea that it is the great challenge that the U.S. will face over the course of the century and I think it is. We’re not doomed to conflict, but we are certainly locked-in in an era of competition. Then, Southeast Asia is the frontline of that competition, right? The competition for influence within these states, the states that border China is where a lot of the future of the 21st century is gonna be written, much as Eastern Europe was the frontline in the battle for competition with the Soviet Union.
And so I’ve been spending most of my time these days in Manila, and Hanoi, and Jakarta. And I started working South China Sea issues somewhat by accident. I was not a security specialist. I was not a military specialist. I was focused much more on politics and the rules, you know, how does international law work? How do we make the international community function? And the South China Sea is in a sense the first test case of how China’s rising, China is going to behave. So if you’re looking for one area where we can definitively say yes or no China is going to be a rules enforcer, going to help us enforce the way the system works or China’s going to seek to overturn the entire 20th century project. The South China Sea is that test case. And so that’s how I [inaudible 00:08:45].
Wenshan Jia: And I assume both of you speak Chinese?
Gregory Poling: I used to.
Cortez Cooper: Yes. Not as well as you, Dr. Jia.
Gregory Poling: Will there be a test?
Wenshan Jia: Well, I’m beginning to speak broken Chinese because I don’t speak it that much. All right. Great. So the second question of the introduction is from your own perspectives, what challenges does the South China Sea bring to the current state and future of U.S.-China relations?
Cortez Cooper: Okay. I’ll go first like I said then Greg can correct all of my mistakes. I want to get just a couple of points across here before the questions begin because they may or may not come up, and they do bear, certainly do bear, on the future of U.S.-China relations and how the South China Sea impacts that. And I agree completely with Greg. I think the South China Sea really is the cauldron where we can see where this…what our recent national defense strategy would caulk our competition with China is headed, and how China’s going to behave, as they themselves have said they’re gonna become increasingly involved in a global leadership role, which I think is to be expected, given the size of that country, given their economic clout, etc.
And I think the South China Sea will be a test case if you will, right. I think more is kind of the cauldron where that happens. And the first point I would make is that I think behind any of the activities that happen, the individual activities that happen in the South China Sea, U.S. activities there, Chinese activities there, the response of the region, and the other claimants that features within the South China Sea, a backdrop to that really is the larger strategic mistrust, if you will, between the U.S. and China right now.
And I think that you see a lot of China’s responses to U.S. presence in the region, to U.S. activities, military activities, and operations, as well as other diplomatic, and economic activities in Southeast Asia are seen through a prism of still through a prism of containment of the U.S. trying to, in some way, contain China’s rise. And it makes it very difficult. The reason that’s important is it makes it very difficult for U.S. interlocutors with their Chinese counterparts really to get past that initial kind of mistrust. And really get to the root of the issues that face us. And what our expectations as Americans are for how the U.S. role in Asia will play out. And so I think that is difficult.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot we can do about it. I think we need to nibble away at the edges of that South China Sea is an area where we can do that by continuing to hold discussions in our military-to-military relationship on ways to manage problems when U.S. and Chinese forces or U.S. and Chinese, you know, vessels or aircraft of any sort might come into contact in the South China Sea. How do we manage those crises? What mechanisms do we put in place? These are small things but they’re very important things. And I think that again, the South China Sea can be an area where over time, certainly, there could be a lot of problems. But there’s also opportunity there and we shouldn’t miss that.
But by the same token, we shouldn’t we shouldn’t assume that because China’s reaction will be negative to certain activities that take place in the South China Sea, that we should avoid those activities, that would be a mistake. I think there are ways that we need to confront China when there’s activities or behaviors in the South China Sea which we disagree with, such as much of the island-building activity that’s been going on recently. And we have to figure out ways to convince China that the risk of these activities is not worth not worth the cost. And that there still is a risk aversion on the part of the Chinese to get into conflict with the United States. I agree with Greg. I don’t think conflict is inevitable and I don’t think the Chinese want conflict, but we need to make sure that we stand our ground in certain areas.
The maritime domain for China is different from the maritime domain recent activities on the border with Bhutan and the Indian involvement. There, if you’re familiar with that activity recently, the response of India to that, both militarily and diplomatically, I think is a good example of how standing up to China when you see them doing things in disputed areas can be advantageous and can lead to can lead to some good things. It doesn’t mean that the problem goes away. We’re not resolving unfortunately, many of these disputes. We’re managing them. But there are ways to manage them. And in the absence of resolution, that’s a good thing.
Second point I would make, is it’s very interesting that the current effectiveness, at least from my perspective of China, despite their activities in the South China Sea, island-building and other things like that, to see the effectiveness of what some have called, “China’s charm offensive in Southeast Asia.” You know, China’s, the majority of the region probably is still very schizophrenic. They’re very concerned about Chinese activity. But at the same time, the Chinese have economic clout. They have The Belt and Road Initiative that they’ve started that will bring infrastructure projects to countries.
Right now, probably, China’s relations with Malaysia, another South China Sea claimant are as good as they’ve been in many decades. You know, the Philippines would probably have some questions that will deal with President Duterte later but there’s issues there, you know, where China can potentially divide and conquer if you will. And that’s really the effort appears to be behind trying to blame the U.S. for the things that China is doing there, to make it look defensive in nature, to get the region to think that the U.S. is the problem. And then to have them, somehow, buy off on this idea that the U.S. is not a regional actor in the South China Sea and to build on that.
The third thing I’ll talk about is real quickly, is just the growing, what appears to be growing risk acceptance on the part of the PRC, as I pointed out earlier, they don’t want conflict with the United States. They don’t particularly want conflict with any of their neighbors. But I think that there’s a growing, with their growing military capability, and with now a consolidation of power in Xi Jinping’s hands, a very powerful leader, there appears to be a growing level of risk acceptance that China can, in fact, be more assertive in some of the activities that they do see in the South China Sea. And then manage it so that it still stays below the level of open conflict.
And my concern of that is that it’s again a type of brinksmanship that could lead to miscalculation and escalation. And in some of the Chinese sources over the past few years, and I have had a chance to write a little bit about this, you see some of Chinese strategists thinking through the idea that crisis can be managed in a way that provide opportunity in a way that will change the status quo, and to China’s advantage. And again, these are mostly theoretical and strategic thinking. But they indicate that I think, that there’s maybe a growing confidence and ability to control escalation that may, in fact, be a dangerous way of thinking because escalation is not an easy thing to control.
And the final thing I’ll point out is something I mentioned to Greg earlier and would like hopefully, he can address it also at some point, is the idea of, we’ll see in a minute, of China’s claims. This Nine-Dash Line, the expansiveness of China’s claims in the South China Sea. In many ways, I think it’s counterproductive for China itself. China really seeks to, you know, again not have the region lining up against it but rather to deal bilaterally with all of the actors that have claims in the South China Sea, kind of exclude the U.S. and make deals with the actors.
This idea of a massive, sort of, Chinese like this big claim to me seems to be counterproductive to China itself. That if they would that if there was an acceptance that a vast portion of the South China Sea is open water and again, very important for the flow of trade, etc. and then deal with other issues perhaps, as they would like on a bilateral nature. You know, defining exclusive economic zones from the main boundaries of every country and then working on individual problems that it will be easier, that this idea of a large claim to me is something that’s very problematic. And again, not sure exactly where the Chinese are going with it. So with that, that’s sort of the challenges as I see them. Hope that wasn’t too long. And Greg?
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Mr. Poling, additions, please?
Gregory Poling: Yeah. So, two things. First, when we think about the South China Sea, if you’ve read any report in over the last several years about the South China Sea, you’re probably…well, you’ve probably read that it’s a territorial dispute that the U.S. embroiled in, which is wrong for points I will point out later. We don’t care. There is a territorial dispute there. We just don’t care who owns which rock and reef. That’s not a U.S. interest. It never will be. And two that this is a military conflict and it’s not. There is a military dimension to this. Just as there is a military dimension in almost any competition geopolitically. There is no military solutions to the South China Sea.
The U.S., you know, the Pentagon is under an illusions that there are military solutions to South China Sea. And it’s not our top interest. We have three interests, three very important interests, and a whole bevy of other smaller things. But those three are first, the ability of the U.S. military to operate, to fly, sail, and operate is often the phrase used in the South China Sea the so-called freedom of navigation for our ships and planes. That is one interest. It is certainly the most directly military of our interests. It’s not the most important of our three interests.
Second, defense of our allies. We have a treaty ally in the Philippines. That treaty ally is going to face a situation. Sometime in the next few years, in which the Chinese are probably gonna send a Philippine Coast Guard or Navy vessel to the bottom of the South China Sea. And then either the U.S. responds, as we are legally and morally bound to do or we don’t. And if we don’t, then every ally that the U.S. has globally is gonna start wondering what the price is on their head because the Philippines aren’t worth standing up for. Maybe the Japanese are more important, but they must have some price.
And so there’s a issue of U.S. credibility, definitely regional, and potentially global. And then the third, and the hardest to get a hold of, the hardest to fit into a, you know, a news article, but I think the most important, is the question of the rules-based order overall. The South China Sea is a place where the Chinese are claiming 1,000 miles of water and seabed in direct contravention of international law that the Chinese helped negotiate and that they signed. If the Chinese get their way, then one of, if not the most universally accepted pieces of international law that we have had over the 20th century, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, will be a dead letter.
And pretty soon after that the Russians will start claiming vast swaths of the Arctic, and the Iranians will demand special rights to restrict the Persian Gulf, and it’ll be a race to grab the ocean. Then what we’ll basically have is a system in which big navies in big countries get to make their own rules. And, you know, we spent the better part of the 20th century, post-World War II, trying to make a system that prevents that, in which, yes, we have great power of competition, but rules and institutions order the way international relations work, not who has the biggest ships.
Wenshan Jia: Is this what Trump calls an example of a revision…revisionist power or there are other cases of that?
Gregory Poling: Yes. So this is definitely a case… I think the most clear case of Chinese revisionism. And to be clear, the Chinese are not a threat to U.S. interest institutions in the way that Soviet Union was. They do not present an existential threat. They don’t want to turn over the entire system. They wanna turn over specific parts of the system to make them work better for them. And so the Chinese want one set of rules to exist globally and another set to work just in Asia, in which the Chinese have a special sphere of influence.
But guess what? The rule of law only works if it applies universally. You can’t have a rule of law that doesn’t apply to certain countries. And so in this case, the Chinese certainly are interested in revisionism. In the 1970s and 1980s, they helped negotiate these rules. The only thing that has changed is that they’ve gotten bigger. And now they feel like maybe the rules don’t work for them anymore. That’s not the way rules are supposed to work.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. That’s a good introduction. Let’s move to part one, territory. Exactly where is the South China Sea on a map? Which countries border its waters? So let’s see, is there any way you can help explain it?
Gregory Poling: Yeah. So I’m happy to jump in here. So this is a map that my team at AMTI helped put together with National Geographic. It ran in their magazine a few months ago. What you’re seeing, the lines there are the continental shelves in the South China Sea. And so earlier, when I said that U.S. interests are not in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, what I mean is we need to think of this as two different disputes. You have a dispute over territory and if you look in the map there you’ll see in the north, the Paracel Islands, in the South, the Spratly Islands, and over on the east, Scarborough Shoal. Those are disputed pieces of rock and reef.
You have five different countries that claim sovereignty over these islands. And the U.S. doesn’t care who’s right. We certainly care that nobody uses military force to decide the question. But we don’t really care whether or not those are Chinese rocks or Philippine rocks or Malaysian rocks. But you have a second interconnected overlapping claim that we do care about. And those are the claims to water and airspace. Because those are the claims, on which we all negotiated a treaty 40 years ago that’s supposed to make sure that we don’t have a land grab for the oceans.
And so what you’re seeing here are continental shelves based on the coastlines of the surrounding countries. This is the way that claims to waters and seabed are supposed to work. You have a coastline, you get to claim 200 miles of waters from that coastline, and you get to claim 200 miles of seabed and potentially further based on geology. That’s it. If you look at the Nine-Dash Line, those dotted lines, that’s China’s claim. That claim extends about 1,000 miles as at its furthest end. China bases this on vague historic rights that only applies to Beijing, of 192 countries in the world, China thinks only it gets to claim 1,000 miles of water and seabed.
And so if you’re the Vietnamese and that Chinese claim is accepted, you’re essentially a landlocked state. You have no fishing rights, at least no exclusive fishing rights, you have no rights to undersea oil and gas, you have no rights whatsoever except those that China gives you. The Philippines it’s almost as bad. You have one coastline, not two. And so here is where the U.S. interests actually lie, peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes, but we don’t care how they actually get resolved and making sure that the Nine-Dash Line is not accepted because if the Nine-Dash Line is accepted, then the rulebook itself means nothing.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Let’s move onto number four, question number four. In 1982, the United Nations Convention on the Law on the Sea divided the territorial sea and rights to maritime sources to the respective countries in the region, generally, how did this convention divide the sea? We’ll look at slide two, general provisions of UNCLOS 1982.
Gregory Poling: The way that the oceans worked. The way the law in the oceans worked since at least the 17th century prior to 1982 was this, you had three miles of territorial sea, after that, everything was high seas. That’s the way it worked, that’s the way the British Empire did business. It worked for the countries with the biggest navies. In the 1950s, we had the first UN Convention Law of the Sea. And then, over the course of two decades, countries began negotiating what came to be known as UNCLOS II and then UNCLOS III, that’s the ones that are operating now.
That system was meant to give small countries, coastal countries a fair shake. That basically prior to this, prior to 1982, the U.S., the Russians, the Brits controlled the oceans. We had the blue-water navies, we were gonna pull up oil and gas, we were gonna fish, we were gonna mine for guano anywhere we wanted and if you were a coastal state, tough. What we ended up coming up with, a grand compromise, so to speak, in 1982, was a system, in which we split responsibility between the coastal states, who maybe didn’t have big blue-water navies, but deserved some of those economic resources. And then the blue-water navy states, like us, who wanted international waters.
And so now, instead of three miles, you have a 12-mile territorial sea, considerably bigger. Within that territorial sea, it might as well be your land. You have full rights, that is your territory, nobody can enter or exit, with except, in innocent passage without your permission. Beyond that, out to 200 nautical miles, you have what’s called the exclusive economic zone. These are high-seas except only you can make use of the water. So only you can fish. Only you can do certain scientific research, things like that. And alongside of that, you have the continental shelf. It’s basically easy for the seabed. So if the water above it is you’re easy, the seabed below it is your continental shelf. Only you can pull up oil and gas, only you can do deep-seabed mining, etc.
All of this was again the grand bargain. The U.S. Navy can operate in these waters but only the coastal state gets to fish, only the coastal state gets to pull up oil and gas, etc. And then anything beyond that obviously is high-seas. So when you get beyond 200 miles, it’s a free for all, it’s a wild west. I mean, there are rules but for the most part, anybody can do what they want. This was the bargain that the Chinese helped negotiate. They were a leading member of the developing state negotiating team. Remember, China has an enormous coastline. But at the start of the 20th century, I mean, up until really the 1990s, they had no navy to speak of. They were a brown-water navy.
And so it was in China’s interests to try to extend coastal rights as far as they could. And it was in the U.S. and Russian interests to push back on that as much as we could. We wanted to keep three miles because, in three miles, we win, right? We can sail anywhere in the world. This is the bargain we struck. Everybody else is still okay with that bargain except for Beijing.
Cortez Cooper: Yes. The only thing I would add to that is just because it’s important again for the discussion to follow and for understanding some of the things that you see in the media perhaps, is that the Convention on the Law of the Sea does not deal with sovereignty. You don’t see sovereignty on this list. And a lot of China’s behavior is again through its sovereignty claims to use that as a reason to say that certain things that clearly are indicated in the Convention on the Law of the Sea are null and void, such as the 2016 Tribunal that the Philippines brought in front of International Law Court. You know, Beijing can claim that that’s null and void because they are focused on the sovereignty issue.
First and foremost, and as Greg said, the understanding of sea features, and demarcation, and delimitations, and marine rights, that are dealt within Convention on the Law of the Sea. Some of the things that the Chinese have been doing, both in the South China Sea and more recently, a little bit beyond, principally to the the South China Sea to the west of the Philippines. If you look to the east of the Philippines, an area called the Benham Rise, which is clearly, by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea inclusive economic zone of the Philippines, that the Chinese have recently been doing activity there that indicates again, perhaps, less than an appreciation for and perhaps, an outright abrogation of the things that are spelled out in the Convention on the Law of the Sea. So, you know, again, looking forward to what might come, you know, beyond as we begin to deal with some of the issues in the South China Sea, it doesn’t look good again for the rules-based order.
Wenshan Jia: All right. So…
Gregory Poling: Can I add one thing? Sorry…
Wenshan Jia: Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.
Gregory Poling: …I don’t wanna… There’s a lot here and we don’t all need to be international lawyers. But there is one thing that does matter a lot in the South China Sea besides this territorial sea exclusive economic zone continental shelf regime. And that is islands, the legal status of islands. This was hotly contested during negotiations for UNCLOS for good reason, right? At the start of the 20th century, you had especially on the part of the U.S., Britain, France, a lot of very tiny islands that we had basically taken sovereignty over from the 18th century on for guano mining and things like that, little specks of rock and sand. And it would be absurd to claim giant areas of the sea based on those specks of land.
And so we, again, came up with a compromise. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, your coastline and any of your islands that are above water high-tide automatically get a territorial sea. That’s a given. Only the ones that can support human habitation naturally get an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf. And this matters. So if you claim a rock that happens to stick above the water somewhere in the Pacific, you don’t get to claim a 200-mile easy and kind of shelf of bed. If you have an island with people living on it, yes. That is also your coastline.
And so in a place like the South China Sea, where the vast majority of these features are underwater to begin with, and the ones that do stick up above water, if you left a guy there for a week, you’re gonna come back and find a skeleton. These do not generate easies and continental shelves. And this is exactly what the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal, the Philippines brought this international case against China. It was heard for three years. They ruled in 2016. They said none of these, at least in the Spratlys or islands. Nobody’s ever lived there before the 20th century. If you pulled out the desalination plants nobody would have water to drink on them obviously, they can’t support human habitation.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Move on to how does this correspond to each country’s territorial claims? Do they have, more or less adhere to this, to the Convention? We have another map. Would you please explain it?
Gregory Poling: So…
Wenshan Jia: Either one of you.
Gregory Poling: …nobody’s claims here are perfect. Let’s get that out of the way. The Chinese often like to complain, “Well, we’re not the only ones making excessive claims.” And in a sense, they’re right. There are minor problems, minor legal issues, with some of the other countries claims. The Vietnamese claim, what are called straight baselines that are too excessive in the south, the Malaysians haven’t issued navigational charts like they’re supposed to, things like that. But these are differences in interpretation of the treaty. Everybody else, except for China, is at least, making their claims based on UNCLOS.
Now, the Chinese are making claims entirely outside of that system. And so there is a difference in kind here. And arguing over whether or not the Vietnamese or the Filipinos or the Malaysians might have slightly excessive claims misses the point. They might. A lot of countries do. It is, I mean, they’re just human nature. You are gonna try to get as much as you can within the balance of the system until somebody tells you otherwise. But everybody else at least arguing from the same point, the same starting point except for Beijing. Beijing is claiming historic rights that are found nowhere in International Law or the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And they are basically saying that none of their neighbors get an exclusive economic zone. They all have to share every fish and every drop of oil that comes out of these waters with China.
Wenshan Jia: All right. So how does China define and defend these claims? Can you explain a little bit more about that? Did you already talk about?
Cortez Cooper: We talked about it a little bit but I guess a little more detail I think in 2009, in basically a verbal note if you will, to to the UN, China presented this claim, this rough claim, based on the Nine-Dash Line on historical maps, I guess, and materials like that that were produced pretty vague. And produced those kind of in response to the Philippines and Vietnam…
Gregory Poling: Malaysia.
Cortez Cooper: …Malaysia presentations to the UN, at the time. And, you know, and again, they have remained ambiguous, in terms of the exact definition of the Nine-Dash Line. I, you know, I can surmise why that might be, you know, it’s a question that Greg and I’ve talked about, in terms of whether it’s something that’s meant to be used as a bargaining chip or whether it is something that’s meant to be clarified at a later date or, you know, it’s very difficult to tell.
Wenshan Jia: All right.
Gregory Poling: So the history here is instructive. Because the meaning of the Nine-Dash Line, the way that China makes its claim has changed vastly over the course of the last few decades. So if you go back to the 1930s when this map these dashes originated, what happened is that officials in Southern China at the time the Republic of China under the Nationalist Government, they decided that they wanted to make claim to these islands, based largely on the fact that the French, under the guise of the Protectorate in Tonkin, when they were still the colonial masters of Indochina, were claiming these islands.
And so when the Chinese government, the Nationalists heard about this, they asked all right, “What are these Islands? Why are the French claiming them? Should we be making an objection?” Originally, under the Qing dynasty, Hainan, the big island there at the southern tip of China was considered the southern limits of Chinese territory. By the 1920s-ish, they had extended that to include the Paracels, at least, in some documents. In the 1930s, 1937, I think when the French claimed the Spratly’s for the first time, all of a sudden China also claimed the Spratly’s.
Now, those are matters for historical argument that again, the U.S. doesn’t care about. But where the Nine-Dash Line came in is that the Chinese had no idea, where these islands were in those cases. When the French landed on the Spratly’s, it made a claim the Chinese Consul General in Manila had to ask the U.S. Governor for a map to show where the Spratly’s was. We have the document showing they had no idea. The vast majority of these islands now are Chinese transliterations of British names because they just took the British charts. And, you know, renamed all of them because they had no native names for them, which leads to a whole bunch of mistakes where they, for instance, named underwater features islands because they didn’t understand what a shoal was on British navigational charts.
But to encompass this vast ambiguous island claim that they had no real clear charts of, they just drew these dashes. And so then in 1947, the Nationalist Government officially accepts this Nine-Dash Line. The original title, which was a map of China’s southern islands basically saying, “We don’t really know where the islands are but any islands within that line belong to China.” Over the years since, that claim has been accepted by the PRC, the People’s Republic of China and it has expanded. So what started off as a claim to islands has now become a claim to islands, and water, and airspace, and seabed, and this vast historic rights a word that nobody talked about until the 1990s has been used to try to explain all of this. All of it basically comes down to bad history, that the Chinese have forgotten what the line meant in the first place and have now filled in the gaps with this weird historic rights claim.
Wenshan Jia: So let me ask you, why Nine-Dash instead of 10 or 11 or 7? Are they in a form of certain bricks or what kind of material? Is it just a symbol on the map?
Gregory Poling: Not only has the definition of the lines changed the number of lines have changed over the years. So the original map drawn by the Republic of China with 11 dashes included two dashes in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those 11 dashes are still on maps in Taiwan. So Taiwan still has this claim. They don’t claim it under historic rights like the PRC does. They still have the same one. China got rid of the two dashes when they negotiated a boundary in the Gulf of Tonkin with the Vietnamese. They’ve since added back another line. So there are now 10 lines on the current Chinese map because they’ve added another one on the east side of Taiwan to make clear that Taiwan is also part of their claim.
So the number of dashes and their placement shifts and moves year-to-year. The State Department did a study in 2009, I think, I’m sorry, in 2012, where they tried to figure out exactly where the dashes are because there are no coordinates. I mean, there is no navigational chart that shows sailors, where the limits of China’s claim is. And I think they said there were at least 11 or maybe 13 different versions of the line that have been published in Chinese government documents over the years, all of them slightly different. And so you can find a map that the U.S. State Department made of where all of these dashes move, and change, and overlap.
And if you were to connect them, the most recent official one from 2009, what’s interesting is a slice of Borneo within the line, if you just connected them so apparently, Malaysian territory falls within it. You literally couldn’t throw a stone off Palawan, off the Philippines without landing in Chinese territory. I mean, they are patently absurd, in a sense that no reasonable cartographer in China would ever think to make this a claim. They’re just kind of stuck with it now and they have to figure out ways to explain it and interpret it.
Wenshan Jia: So Nine-Dash Line is basically a symbolic system on the map. I’m talking about literally along those lines, along the Nine-Dash Line, are there outposts to signify that that’s the border or that’s the?
Gregory Poling: No. No. And again, where that so…
Wenshan Jia: Okay.
Gregory Poling: …on the map in 2009 that was submitted to the UN, each of the dashes is over 20 kilometers wide.
Wenshan Jia: Okay.
Gregory Poling: So where exactly the boundary is within those 20 kilometers, who knows? And again none of the dashes match up with previous versions of the map or even with the current map. If you get a Chinese passport right now, there is a Nine-Dash Line on the little map of China. It does not look like this one. It changes based on who you ask, and what the year is, and it’s purposely left ambiguous and vague because then, China can claim anything it wants and explain it after the fact.
Wenshan Jia: Right.
Cortez Cooper: Yeah, if there were an attempt to sort of make some sense out of it, you would think that the Chinese would look at, as Greg mentioned earlier, the very, you know, Convention on the Law of the Sea, you know, treaty points or convention points, that they did agree to, in terms of defining islands low elevation reefs, rocks, etc. And then attempt to show where territorial seas would be figured from that. But you don’t even have that, sort of, that effort.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Then, where are the most contested territories in the South China Sea?
Gregory Poling: So right now, the most contested territories are the Spratly Islands in the south and Scarborough Shoal. The Paracels have been under exclusive Chinese jurisdiction since 1975. So in the 1950s, immediately after World War II essentially, France reoccupied the Paracel Islands, which had been taken over by the Japanese. All of these islands were occupied by Japan during World War II. When the French left Indochina in the 1950s, the Republic of Vietnam maintained Garrisons on about half of them, the western half, and the Republic of China, the Nationalist government, occupied the eastern half. After the fall of Saigon, within months of the fall of Saigon, the Republic of China Garrison, I’m sorry, at the time, by then the PRC Garrison, since the Chinese have ward over, invaded the western half, drove the Republic of Vietnam, it’s all your south Vietnamese garrison off. They’ve been in control of that since.
So Chinese control of the Paracels, are pretty well-established now for 40-plus years. The Spratly’s however, hotly contested. China occupies seven of the features. They most recently occupied Mischief Reef in 1995. That was the last time anybody occupied something new. The Filipinos have eight and Malaysians have five. The Vietnamese are tough depending on how you count because they’ve built multiple outposts on specific reefs. They have a 49 different outposts bred across 27 reefs depend on the way you count. So it’s and a lot of these are within a mile, half a mile of each other. I mean, these guys are staring at each other with binoculars. It’s a powder keg. And then Scarborough Shoal is a whole different problem.
Scarborough Shoal was uncontested Philippine territory as far as anybody knew until 2012. We have multiple documents since the 1940s from U.S. Cabinet officials saying that the U.S. recognized Scarborough Shoal as part of the Philippines. We controlled it when it was still the Commonwealth of the Philippines. In 2012, the Chinese seized control of it. As far as we know, they never actually claimed it until the 1990s when they kind of added a new name to it and expanded their claim. And so it’s a sore spot for the Filipinos, given that it was basically seized six years ago and the Chinese didn’t pay any price for it whatsoever.
Cortez Cooper: And the only thing I’d add is sort of depends what you mean by most contested territories. Obviously, for the U.S., if you think about the two areas, where we’re talking most contested it really is, you know, it’s the Spratly holdings of, you know, so Vietnam, the Philippines, and then Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines. Philippines is a U.S. ally. Now, their behavior of late calls that into question somewhat. But they’re a U.S. ally. And so that’s in many ways makes those holdings of greatest concern because of I think as Greg mentioned earlier, the potential requirement for us to come to Philippine aid, you know, if something escalated between China and the Philippines there. But then also the Vietnam holdings that are contested as well could potentially be a powder keg.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Briefly, what has been done to resolve territorial sea disputes?
Gregory Poling: Nothing.
Wenshan Jia: Nothing?
Gregory Poling: Look, territorial disputes are notoriously tough to resolve. We should be realistic. All of the claimants should be realistic. These disputes are gonna be here for generations. You know, if you look at the history, the way that territorial disputes get resolved, either through military conquest, which obviously, we don’t want to see happen, direct negotiation, which is awfully difficult when you have six different countries trying to negotiate over the Spratly Islands or arbitration and the Chinese are not going to go to arbitration anytime soon.
And so there is no legal mechanism that’s really going to allow a resolution of the territorial disputes. Elsewhere in Asia, you know, the Chinese and the Japanese are debating have been debating, sovereignty over the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea for decades. China and Japan still argue over sovereignty over Takeshima or Dokdo Island and will for decades.
So the way this works in Asia, is usually you have a dispute, you find ways to get around it for 20, 30, 50 years if you have to. That’s what’s gonna happen here. What we need to be worried about is how to manage the dispute over waters and seabed around it so it doesn’t spark a conflict. As long as we can avoid a conflict over the waters, these guys can occupy those reefs for 100 years, and keep staring each other, and it’s not gonna make much difference
Cortez Cooper: Yeah. I agree. I mean, and I think the problem right now is that you had established perhaps a long-term mechanism for beginning to solve those disputes except for, as I see it, three things, and Greg might be able to add to this. The first is that is that there has been since between ’02 and 2013, the principal mechanism for managing any kind of activities between rival claimants or disputes in the South China Sea was an Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN declaration on the conduct of parties. I guess is the DoC the Declaration of Conduct not legally-binding, it’s just…but it sets out some principles for dealing with problems in that.
This past August, a framework was agreed to, by the 10 ASEAN members and China to begin discussions on an actual code of conduct for the South China Sea. The problem is is that just like the DoC, before the code of conduct that at least in the framework, there’s no provision for that to be legally-binding. So in the absence of something that’s legally-binding to help resolve sort of the disputes that Greg mentioned that can be dealt with, there’s a process perhaps, maybe there’s hotlines developed, there’s other issues. But there’s nothing that they that the parties have signed-up to legally, that says that, “We will abide by the decisions that are made when these disputes are brought in front of sort of international court or resolved under a code of conduct.” So even though it’s been touted as, you know, sort of, we’re advancing toward a code of conduct it’s not gonna be legally-binding.
The second thing is I still believe the second biggest problem again is Beijing’s desire to paint the problem as one that’s that non-regional actors are involved in. And that’s a roundabout way of criticizing the United States and saying that these, you know, that, “We need to deal with it and they should stay out of there.” And as Greg indicated perfectly, that’s not right, that’s not going to happen. And then the sort of the third thing and I’ve already mentioned it really is the sort of the idea of the Nine-Dash Line or the idea of the expansiveness of the Chinese claim. It even gets in the way of China being able to bilaterally deal with the issues that would help to lead eventually toward territorial resolution.
Wenshan Jia: All right.
Gregory Poling: Yeah. That’s right. I mean, so in the most excessive example, the Chinese want to negotiate shared fishing rights with Indonesia, in that area called the Natuna Sea, above the Natuna Islands. If you were sitting in Jakarta, and you were an Asian government official, why would you want to negotiate shared fishing rights 50 miles off your coast with a country 1,000 miles away? And so the very existence of the Nine-Dash Line, I think is an affront to these countries, right? That China is imposing the idea that these waters are disputed on smaller countries, where everybody else gets 200 miles, the Chinese get 1,000 miles, and now we all have to negotiate because our stuff lies within a 1,000 miles of China? It is patently-absurd, nobody signed up to that system until the Chinese started demanding it in 2009.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. We have ran…we have half an hour left. More questions. So I’d appreciate if you answer questions on resources and Global Trade. This is part two we’re moving into. I’m gonna just read all the questions under part two, so that you can answer it in a joint manner. Would that be okay?
Gregory Poling: Yeah.
Wenshan Jia: Yeah. So first question is why are the geopolitics of South China Sea of such significance? Can you give an audience the breakdown of the regional, global economic significance? And then next question, is one scholar recently noted that the South China Sea is the industrial hub of China, how much does that factor of China’s growth affect tensions within the waterway? Next is how much has nationalistic politics, especially from the likes of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines contribute to the competition in the South China Sea? Final question within part two is how have other major powers injected themselves into the economic competition over the South China Sea, for example, United States, Russia, and India? So how about each one of you, spend about five minutes?
Gregory Poling: Yeah. I’ll jump in first.
Wenshan Jia: All of those things.
Gregory Poling: So let me take kind of the first two as a bundle. Economics, when it comes to debate over the South China Sea the problem for me because it gets used as a red herring. It’s a very useful eye-popping statistic when you read news articles and they say, “Oh, you know $5.3 trillion in trade passes through the South China Sea annually.” That number is a little inflated but it’s closer to three. But the point is the South China Sea is one of the busiest waterways on the planet. That’s true. The Strait of Malacca, that runs at the very southern end of that map past Singapore, that sea is I think the last numbers I saw were four times as much trade as the Panama Canal every year. It’s second only to the Strait of Hormuz for the amount of oil and gas that passes through, you know, the Japanese, the Koreans are reliant on shipments through there. All of that is true.
That said, it’s irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned with the South China Sea. The Chinese are not going to cut off commercial trade through the South China Sea. They’re also relying on it as anybody else. We’re not gonna do it. There’s this notion that’s been kicked around for over 20 years now of the Malacca dilemma. The Chinese have been terrified that we or our allies might close the Strait to choke them off in some future conflict. But imagine that conflict, in which, we’re willing to cut off 60% of Japanese oil and gas shipments to damage the Chinese. We’re already in World War III. We’re gonna be not concerned with the Malacca Straits whatsoever. There is no reasonable level, at which, you can kind of cap that kind of escalation.
And so, yes, they’re big numbers, and they’re very sexy, and they’re largely irrelevant. Any cut-off of commercial traffic for the South China Sea would be accidental. It would be because somebody’s fighting and insurance rates skyrocket, and so people decide to kick around. And some of my colleagues see if I did a very good study last year on the economic cost of that. It would be pretty bad for a couple of weeks but then ships would just start kicking around Australia, and it actually doesn’t cost as much as you would think. It’s a few dollars, you know, per shipment that it actually runs you to kick around Australia and go run in Indonesia. And so, yeah, it would be extremely damaging to countries like Vietnam, but it’s not going to matter that much, to major global ship-borne traffic.
What does matter, are resources within the South China Sea to those countries. And so if you are Vietnam or you are the Philippines you desperately need oil and gas resources aligned with South China Sea. You desperately need fish. Latest numbers I have are something like 3.5 million Southeast Asians are directly employed in the fishing industry in the South China Sea and that’s, you know, millions more in related industries. And so the idea of a fisheries collapse, which we’re five-10 years away from a catastrophic fisheries collapse in the South China Sea because of overfishing, those will have major economic impacts. But those are economic drivers for the claimant countries. They don’t matter globally.
And so when we talk about that I think it often detracts away from the bigger questions, which are the questions of the rules, and nationalism, and, you know, the trade doesn’t matter. And it gives the Chinese an easy out because Beijing often says, “We’re not threatening freedom of navigation.” Meaning commercial shipping, and so there’s no problem here. That’s a straw man argument nobody should be arguing that the Chinese are threatening commercial navigation. They’re threatening a whole lot of other things.
The second question on Duterte. So for those who don’t know, Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in May 2016. He took office three weeks after the Philippines won their Arbitral Award against the Chinese, which had taken them three years to get to. And he immediately shells the disputes that, “We’re not gonna talk about this award. I’m gonna reach out to the Chinese.” Duterte is a problem. Duterte is the first President of the Philippines from Mindanao, which is the southernmost island. He’s rabidly anti-American. He’s been rabidly anti-American since college when one of his professors was the current head of the Philippine Communist Party.
He loves Beijing. He loves Moscow. He often talks about this. He’s done everything he can to try to distance the Philippines from the U.S. as a treaty ally. He has found the balance of what is politically acceptable in the Philippines however, I mean, after decades as a treaty ally, we are the major investor in the Philippines, we are the number two trading partner, we are the number two investor. Most Filipinos are pro-American. Our current administration has higher approval ratings in the Philippines than they do in the U.S. And I mean a lot.
I think President Trump’s current rating is 82% in the last poll I saw in the Philippines. 90-plus % of Filipinos support the alliance, over 80% support a permanent U.S. military presence in the islands. The Armed Forces of the Philippines are clearly pro-American, which Duterte has admitted. And so as much as he’s trying to pull the Philippines toward China, every time he does, he gets pushed back. And so Duterte is a problem. He shouldn’t be used as an excuse on the U.S. side, which is how I worry he’s being treated in Washington.
There are not a lot of Philippine experts in Washington as you can imagine. Duterte says a lot of ridiculous crazy things in the press. He does a lot of America-bashing. But the Alliance is about a lot more than Rodrigo Duterte. You know, we have an alliance between the people of the United States and the people of the Philippines and not with their President. And so he’s gonna be a pain for the next few years but it’s no excuse to abrogate our legal and moral commitment.
Cortez Cooper: I would just agree with completely with everything Greg said, I’d add on sort of the economic. Certainly, it’s not the industrial hub of China except that it brings materials necessary materials, into China, which again, means that they’re not gonna threaten that but because of that, China does see the South China Sea a strategic water. And, you know, sort of, looking further down the road what China is doing toward regional preeminence, let’s say. Let’s say, it’s not necessarily regional dominance, I’d pick your word. But looking down the road of regional preeminence in Asia, the Nationalist card and also just the control if you will the de facto control of strategic territory and it is strategic water for several reasons, you know, is important.
And so it maintains it’s important to Beijing for that reason. And they’re willing to, at least purportedly, willing to negotiate in good faith about joint exploration of all of the potential minerals, fisheries, you know, the energy resources, if they can even be gotten to and potentially in the future, they will. And certainly, it’s a concern. So I think they’re willing potentially to talk about those things bilaterally with the countries in the region and are doing so with the Philippines, with Malaysia but into some extent with Vietnam. But it, you know, the idea that the acceptance of Chinese sovereignty is the key before any of this, you know, really become, you know, comes to fruition is the issue. And I think that’s, you know, that’s worth keeping in mind.
The Nationalist politics, you know, I agree with Greg on Duterte. The concern I have is that, you know, again, how much potential damage can be done despite the fact that many of his military, many of his advisers, that many of the Philippine people are not necessarily gonna go down the road that he wants to go down with China. To what extent can damage be done during the time that he’s in charge, he joked just this week or late last week that the Philippines, you know, could become a Province of China, the Republic of China…
Gregory Poling: Although he said the Republic of China with Taiwan.
Cortez Cooper: That’s right. He used the wrong word. I think he meant Beijing but you’re right. He did say Republic of China. And again, even as a joke, that’s right now in the region, kind of, you know, not terribly helpful. So again, I think that the issue there is that he’s helping to propagate a little bit this narrative from Beijing that China’s actions, their greater assertiveness in the South China Sea is somehow justified by U.S. presence or U.S. activity. He propagates that he buys it and puts it out. And it’s something again I don’t necessarily think other leaders or other people or other, you know, strategic-level thinkers in the region agree with that. But it, you know, any kind of buying into that narrative, I think in the region is unhelpful.
The better thing would again, be, sort of, a more muscular backlash against the militarization of features in the South China Sea. And more, you know, sort of, standing up to Beijing and saying, “We’ve got to get a good code of conduct in place. We have to, you know, we have to make sure that we reduce the likelihood of escalation or conflict in the South China Sea.” Other powers injected themselves…
Wenshan Jia: Right, right.
Cortez Cooper: …in economic competition. You know, to some extent, it’s interesting to see India and Japan and the activities that they’re involved in, in the South China Sea, India’s involvement with Vietnam. I won’t go into a lot of detail but there’s a quite…there’s an important quadrennial defense dialogue between the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan. And it has obviously some impact on the South China Sea and the activities of those nations there. And they increasingly are playing roles, you know, with the Japan providing Coast Guard vessels to the Philippines, etc.
So there is activity by other actors that generally speaking, I think supports overall what the U.S. would like to see, in terms of responding to Chinese activity. Russia on the other hand, again, is willing to, you know, does train an exercise with the PRC with China. And I guess has done some joint training recently. Have they done summits in the South China Sea areas, in joint naval activity? [crosstalk 00:58:46]
Gregory Poling: Last year I think they did an…
Cortez Cooper: Yeah.
Wenshan Jia: The other peninsula. Korean Peninsula, of Korean Peninsula.
Cortez Cooper: Well, they have done it up there. But I think they’ve also done a little bit in South China Sea. Russia is willing to get involved, you know, again, not completely sure what all the intricacies of their ultimate objectives in that, are but it is supporting Beijing in an area, where Beijing clearly, is at odds with the U.S. And Russia sees some advantage in that.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Let’s move onto part three, final part, the Military. Since early in this decade, China has actively been constructing artificial islands with military installations in South China Sea. Can you discuss where these islands are strategically located, how they are from militarily equipped? We have about five slides.
Gregory Poling: So the Chinese in the Spratly Islands were latecomers. They didn’t occupy anything until 1988, by which time, all of the good real estate was already taken by the Vietnamese, the Philippines, and the Malaysians. So what the Chinese occupy are underwater reefs or at least reefs that are almost entirely underwater. They have had a rock that stick up here and there, which means that if you were the Chinese and you wanted to build anything of military significance, you had to expand these. What the Chinese started doing in late 2013 is exactly that. They brought out these massive dredging ships, where they would stick hard pipes down onto the coral, break it up, suck it up, and spray it out of a hose on the other end until it piled up and formed an artificial island.
If you’ve ever seen the way they truck-in the sand for the Outer Banks in North Carolina every year after storms, that times 100, except you’re doing it in the middle of the ocean. Then you build retaining walls around the whole thing, flatten it out, and start building military facilities. They’ve now done this at all seven of their islands. This one that you’re seeing is Mischief Reef. Mischief Reef is particularly worrying to the Filipinos. It’s the closest one to the Philippines. It’s the last one that was occupied in 1995. It’s about 20 miles from a group of Filipino Marines who were stationed at Second Thomas Shoal. So it’s worrying to them.
And to give you a scope of the scale of the entire the kind of the rim there that they built on, that is roughly the same size as the I-495 Beltway around Washington so all of D.C. within the Beltway could fit in the lagoon of that island. It’s pretty big. The entire left side that you’re seeing there is a runway. That’s a 3,000-meter runway. You can launch or land anything short of a Space Shuttle, at least anything in the Chinese arsenal. And so they now have not just the runway, they’ve built at this facility, 24 fighter jet hangars, and another four very big hangars for bombers, refueling tankers AWACS, things like that, identical deployments that the other three of their biggest ones. So total you’re talking about potentially 72 combat aircraft along with more than a dozen large aircraft.
This is not a civilian facility. The Chinese like to say they’ve built this to do, you know, fishermen shelters and provide civilian services. They might be doing that too, but this is a military base, and it is absurd to argue that’s anything else. It has advanced point defenses, 100-millimeter guns at each of those cardinal points, it’s got massive radar and signals intelligence facilities. Nothing moves in the South China Sea anymore without the Chinese knowing about it. And that includes U.S. assets.
This is Fiery Cross Reef. The red is what they built just last year. So it’s not as if this is stopped or slowed down, it is probably the intelligence collection hub for the entire Spratly Islands. All that red stuff at the very North there, those are all ray domes and massive HF radar facilities. They’ve got huge underground storage for ammunition, fuel, water. They’ve got, let’s see, mobile missile shelters. I mean, this has everything you need to threaten your neighbors.
And Subi Reef, the last of the big three, which is just 12 miles from Thitu Island, which is the biggest of the Philippine occupied Islands, where the Filipinos have between 100 and 200 civilians living, on any given day. And so if you’re a Filipino civilian there, which includes, by the way, an elementary school. I mean, this is mainly bureaucrats, their families. If you look out to the East, you see the lighthouse from Subi Reef reminding you that the Chinese are just over the horizon. Every time the Filipinos come into land at their airstrip there on that island, they get warned by the Chinese that they’re entering Chinese airspace, including when their Defense Secretary landed in the summer. And so, all of this is built with the goal of establishing Chinese dominance over the South China Sea, in peacetime.
What you often hear from, I think, some non-experts on this who take a look, who don’t realize how big it is, and for a little more scope. Subi Reef, the one I just showed you, it’s as big as the entire Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Honolulu. At least all of Pearl Harbor can fit within the lagoon. So these are enormous facilities. People will often say, “Well, you know, the U.S. can handle these in a conflict,” and you’re right. They’re only survivable for days, maybe weeks, if the Chinese are lucky.
That’s not the point. If you’re the Filipinos or the Vietnamese or the Malaysians, the Chinese can have fighter jets over your capital in a matter of hours. They can have assets over your islands in 15 minutes, and there is probably no U.S. asset closer than Sasebo in Japan or Guam, unless we happen to have an aircraft carrier in the region. And so in peacetime, these are an implicit threat to all of China’s neighbors.
Cortez Cooper: Yeah. The only thing I’ll add to that, and again, from the perspective of someone who’s been a U.S. planner in the military is that, yeah, that you’ll hear about the vulnerability of these features. They are, they’re yes they’re vulnerable. But if you’re a military planner and you have to think, “What do I have to do if I have to, you know, if I have to come to the Philippines’ aid, something’s escalating in the South China Sea?” And we have, you know, we have limited ordinance to deal with a rising military power like China in any conflict.
And suddenly, in addition to having to deal with, you know, with Asia’s largest navy and a navy that’s becoming increasingly more capable by the day, building the second largest and most capable destroyer in the world after our own Zumwalt-class, you can’t afford to waste ordinates. And you don’t need additional planning vectors to think about, “How do I deal with China if they’ve managed to extend their air defense umbrella?”
You know, from the mainland, from [inaudible 01:05:09], from the Paracels South. Even if it’s only for a short period of time before you’re able to neutralize that, the amount of ordinates required to do that, the planning factors when you have to think about doing that. These are not insignificant features at all. They are, you know, they are a big concern to military planners and should be. And as Greg pointed out, even more importantly, because none of us want to be at the point, where we’re actually having to think about that, we pay people to plan for that. But none of us want to go there.
But even below that threshold of major conflict, the Chinese strategy right now is to stay below that threshold and it’s to use their Coast Guard, to use their maritime militia, civilian craft ostensibly, and in paramilitary, backed up by navy grey holes to increase their presence on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. These facilities allow them to do that. And have a pretty robust presence in the South China Sea that can be logistically supported, that has better communications, better, you know, intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to give them situational awareness in those seas. So it is very important.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. We have about 15 minutes left. I have about probably five questions. Perhaps, I can ask you guys to answer these questions at the same time. So next question…the question number 14 is, is this is a defense posture by China who fear encirclement from the United States and its allies or share ambition in the region? And then, how have Association of Southeast Asian Countries reacted militarily to Chinese activity? And then China has marginally surpassed the United States in the South China Sea, does the construction of these island bases change the strategic dynamic between the two great powers, if so, how? Again, there was this I think each one of these questions will have a slide. I think I’ll stop here to probably just for you guys to answer those three questions at one time.
Gregory Poling: So I’ll jump to the last one first or maybe [inaudible 01:07:27] next last one. Has China actually established at least temporary dominance or an edge over the U.S. when it comes to the South China Sea militarily? Not yet. I mean, that is clearly overblown. When it comes to our surface assets and our sub-surface assets, we’re clearly dominant. And they have not deployed combat aircraft to those islands yet. It’s a matter of when, not if. For the time being, they haven’t. And, you know, there is a U.S. Navy ship in the port of Manila any day, any given day of the year. I haven’t seen numbers from last year. But I think 2015 we had 180 port calls in the Philippines.
And so if you assume a ship doesn’t just stay for a day, that’s way more than one day a year. And so we’ve always got something there. We have a pretty robust presence in South China Sea. The trend is worrying though. And my biggest concern is when they do start operating these air bases, which I think is a matter of months. It’s really a political decision from Beijing at this point. Everything you need to do it’s in place. When they do, it’s not going to be enough to keep the U.S. out of the South China Sea. It’ll impose a cost on us and especially, in a wider conflict, in which, we’re about defending Taipei and Tokyo. We probably don’t have a lot of effort to spend in the South China Sea.
But more immediately, it fundamentally undermines our treaty commitment to the Philippines. Because if you imagine a scenario, in which, the Chinese decides that they’re going to say take out a Philippine ship in the South China Sea or blockade and try to starve out the Filipino Marines that are on Second Thomas Shoal as they tried to do in 2014. And they have air assets 15 minutes away, and we have nothing closer than Guam. We do not have a credible commitment. You cannot fake forward presence.
And so they are going to get to a place, I worry, where the Philippines, politically, is going to find it very difficult to rationalize standing up to Beijing, even with U.S. commitments. Because even if we said, “We have your back,” we don’t, at least not quick enough to save those Marines. And so that fundamentally shifts the balance of power, not today, but pretty soon.
Cortez Cooper: Yeah. I agree with that. I mean this is a slide some of my colleagues worked on. If you want to delve more into it, go online at RAND and look up U.S. Military Scorecard and it’ll talk about different areas, regions, and contingencies. You know, it looks pretty good if you like green and, you know it’s mostly green still. But the point is it’s, you know, it’s not all green and it’s changing over time. And the issue, I think, as Greg pointed out is that China’s talking about a home game in many respects. And the issues involved in sort of being able to project power to defend allies across the globe really requires being able to dominate at the point of conflict, at the particular points that are under dispute.
And that’s, you know, again, a very difficult and increasingly difficult thing for us to do. And it’s about airspace, as well. Remember that, it’s about airspace as much as it is maybe not as much but almost as much as it is about the maritime surface. And so, you know, the things that they’re putting out in these on these facilities and potentially can do with their Navy and their Coast Guard to reinforce what’s on those little pieces of land is a big concern.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Let’s move onto the last three questions. What do you think the United States pivot to Asia especially Trump administration’s most recent redeployment of forces mean for the future of South China Sea? And then 17, in November, the Harvard Kennedy School, Graham Allison spoke at the Nixon Library. In his talk, he illustrated how a simple freedom of navigation operation conducted by the United States Navy could erupt into a full-scale war. In the context of the South China Sea, are the U.S. and China on a trajectory toward war? It reminds me of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who says there are 1,000 reasons for United States and China to get along. How do you answer these two questions?
Gregory Poling: I’ll start with Graham Allison’s piece. So Graham Allison framed his recent book around the famous Thucydides Trap, which everybody’s familiar is Thucydides well is the writer of the Peloponnesian War and the idea that Athens and Sparta were doomed to conflict and much the same way the U.S. and China are doomed to conflict. And I don’t buy it. I find it oversimplified. And to be fair, that’s a gross oversimplification of Graham’s argument, too.
But the argument that you often hear filtering through the region and even in policy dispute or the policy debates here in Washington it is one the shares that defeatism, the idea that because say, a fawn[SP] off, in which a U.S. ship asserts that we have certain rights here and sail through the Nine-Dash Line despite China’s objections and that could trigger conflict means that the only reasonable thing to do is to surrender. You know, raise the white flag, the Chinese want it more, we’re gonna go home.
I think that misunderstands U.S. interests here. I think it misunderstands the ripple effect of allowing China to basically take what it wants from its neighbors just because it’s big and they’re not. What that means for the entire post-war system that has preserved peace and stability globally for the most part for, you know, 75 years. And I think it’s just blatantly false. So the Chinese time and again, over the last few years, when presented with the choice to use military force or back down have backed down. And this is not from the U.S. alone. The Japanese have done this very successfully around the Senkaku’s since at least 2012.
In 2014, when the Chinese deployed an oil rig to dispute a water of Vietnam, said it was gonna be there for three months. The Vietnamese sent hundreds of fishing boats, ramming, and bumping with Chinese Coast Guard and fishermen. The Chinese accidentally sunk one and got so scared because they zomped[SP] a dozen Vietnamese fishermen in the water and very nearly killed them on global television that they pulled out a month early. They haven’t brought the rig back since.
The Filipinos, that same year, when the Chinese instituted a blockade of their Marines on the Sierra Madre with a ship they have at Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese tried to starve them out. The Filipinos started doing air drops of food, and water for about two months, and then they loaded a civilian boat full of not just supplies, but also journalists. And had it run the blockade. And we had a P-8 overhead to let the Chinese know that we were watching and the Chinese let it go. Lifted the blockade the next day, haven’t reinstituted in the last four years.
The point being the Chinese do not want conflict, they feel that they can get what they want without it. They can get what they want by bullying and threats. And so far, we’ve been batting about 500, but that’s not good enough because, you know, they only have to get away with it once and they’ve changed the status quo. And we have to successfully deter them every single time. And being successful 50% of the time is not working.
Cortez Cooper: I agree. We’re not on a trajectory towards a war in the South China Sea. I’m much more worried about Taiwan. And I don’t necessarily think that any, you know theory of international relations can determine whether that will go the wrong direction or not there’s just too many factors involved but I’m much more worried about Taiwan over the next five, to eight to 10 years than I am about the South China Sea. But as Greg said, if we aren’t thinking pretty frequently clearly and then putting thinking into action about proportional responses to Chinese activity then, you know, then we’re basically ceding the field there.
And I don’t have time to go into a lot of details about what some of these specific things can be. The one that obviously makes the news the most are our freedom of navigation operations which are Greg and I were talking earlier are horribly mischaracterize, generally speaking, in the media. But they’re very important and they can be used in a variety of ways and need to be. But there are other options as well that we can do in terms of training and exercises with partners in the region. Our relationship with Vietnam is very important in this regard and which direction we go with that.
Again, interesting to be sitting in the library here, at this time, and talking about that. But it’s important in terms of how we choose to partner with Vietnam in certain things, which capabilities we potentially help them to build. Even without us, they’re certainly building some capabilities to respond to Chinese activities. That I think will be helpful in terms of responding to what’s going on in the South China Sea.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you. Last question. This is certainly in the tradition of President Nixon who ended Vietnam War and brokered peace with China. The question is in your opinion, what can U.S. policymakers and actors do just like Nixon did to defuse tensions in the region?
Gregory Poling: I imagine we both have a laundry list of things. So look the first, the big picture problem here is that the U.S. needs to do a better job communicating our interests clearly. And especially, under the current administration with the hyper-focus on North Korea, which is literally sucking all the air out of the policies in Washington. People can’t focus on anything but North Korea. North Korea is important. It’s today’s crisis. You can’t ignore tomorrow’s crisis still. You have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. We need to be doing a better job communicating how much this matters to us, make it clear that we do have interests here, and we’re not gonna walk away from them.
Number two is we need to shore up our alliance with the Philippines. If you lose the Philippines here, you lose the South China Sea, period. You can’t do it for them. You can’t go in and insist that they defend their own rights. And the problem with Duterte is that he is already predisposed to believe that we are unreliable. He says time and again, that is foolish of the Filipinos to believe that the U.S. will actually defend them. We need to make clear that that is not foolish. And the first thing we should do is issue a public clarification that our Mutual Defense Treaty does apply in the South China Sea.
We did this in 2013, President Obama was in Tokyo, made a big speech, in which he said the Senkaku Islands apply, which is the Japanese dispute with the Chinese. And we very purposely haven’t said that for the Filipinos. And so ever since that day Philippine government officials have been saying, “Why is it that you gave the Japanese a guarantee you won’t give to us?” That’s a fair question. And we need to recognize that Duterte or no Duterte, we have fundamental interests here. And one of them is to shore up that alliance. If we don’t do that, the Filipinos are not going to follow through with plans to allow forward deployment of U.S. assets, which as I said earlier, you need to have assets closer than Guam. The only way we can do it is to put them in the Philippines, and the only way that Duterte is gonna let us do that is if we make it clear that we’re actually going to use them to defend Filipino troops.
Cortez Cooper: Yeah. I agree completely with that. That is a great point. So now, I mentioned briefly a minute ago sort of these ideas of proportional responses. They would predominately be military because they would involve military forces as the principal tool of sort of being in China’s face and making sure they understand the risk. And I think that actually over time diffuses tensions. Again, the potential for escalation is certainly there but that’s important. But I think bottom line is that the real tools here are non-military. And we’re seeing nations now and I won’t publicly here take a stand on whether withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific partnership was a bad or a good thing, happy to talk about it offline.
But we haven’t replaced that with a vision of economic leadership in the region, to this point, you know, yet. And regional actors are now negotiating what it looks like without the United States. That’s not good. And that’s the problem is that, you know, if we’re going to defuse tensions in the region and maintain our status as the, you know, the principal arbiter of stability, peace, and progress in the region, you know, again, we have to make sure that the clear message of leadership is there.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you very much. These are very informative answers. Constitute a great repertoire of information about this very important issue as it’s globally watched and followed. So we do have a few minutes actually, two minutes. Perhaps, we could extend a few minutes to have a few, a couple of questions.
Gregory Poling: Here, I’ve got a microphone. I’ll come to you.
Man 1: Yeah. I wanted to thank you.
Gregory Poling: I’ve got a microphone right here we’ll use.
Man 1: Okay. I’m on. Well, first of all, I wanted to say thank you very much, Greg, great informative session. The thing that as a former military guy, I kind of understand everything here, and but I kind of also say that what we are not talking about, if I were the head of the PRC, I’d be coming up with the same strategy. It’s a brilliant strategy. I’ve read somewhere where they’re growing 20 million people a year since the early 90s. I’ve got this huge growing body. I’ve got all these aspirations. I need all this. So I’ve got the One Belt Road, I’ve got the Nine-Dash Line here, I’m infiltrating as much as I can throughout Africa, and we’re talking here like next 10 years. We need to counter them, and do this, and do that.
They’re looking 50 years from now. What is this map gonna look like 50 years from now? And no one, there’s no sheriff in town. I can tell you, the United States of America is not gonna go over there. After Vietnam and after the global war on terror, and after the complacency we have in this country, there’s no appetite for what is happening over there. We don’t care. People like you and I and the people in this room, we care. But the Americans don’t care.
And so you’re not gonna be able to go over there and counter them in any way. And I think it’s gonna be, let’s say, 50 years from now they’re gonna say, “Hey, this is our lake. Stay the hell out. And this is the way it’s going to be.” And we’re gonna say, “Yes, sir, three bags full.” Assuming the same way with Taiwan and all the other little small countries around there are gonna be…there’s no other recourse. That’s kind of what I see this thing. If I were the head of the PRC, I’d be coming up with the same strategy.
Cortez Cooper: Yeah. I’ll make a couple of comments on that. I think, you know, again…
Wenshan Jia: Can we just wait until other…
Cortez Cooper: Oh, you’ll take more? Okay.
Wenshan Jia: …people.
Man 2: Hi, I wanted to thank you for your…
Wenshan Jia: Just be brief, please.
Man 2: …questions and answers is very good. My question is to counteract the military presence over there is there talk about possibly opening up Clark Air Force Base again in the Philippines?
Wenshan Jia: Last question. Can we just entertain three questions? Questions? Are there any last questions? Yeah, last question.
Man 3: If you’d please expand your focus to North Korea, could you just comment on whether we can trust the Chinese to help us in that situation? I’d be very interested.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Please.
Cortez Cooper: I’ll go quick. I’ll answer the last one last. I personally I don’t have time I have an interest in answering your question but probably don’t have time. So if you wanna see me afterwards, I can talk a little bit about that with you. I’d love to. On the other one, we are using Clark, some I don’t know how long that will be for. I’ll let Greg, he may know more about that or does know more about it. On PRC grand strategy, their strategy in the South China Sea is I assume a component of their grand strategy, which is to be a major global power roughly by 2049 and to extend the advantages of the economic miracle that has been seen on the Chinese coast to expand it into the hinterlands and actually improve the living conditions of all Chinese even in the hinterlands is really the division and it’s a great vision.
What I have difficulty understanding is that the Chinese leadership, you know, and the elite in the Chinese Communist Party, really seem to have backed themselves into corners in certain areas specifically, when it comes to sovereignty claims. Taiwan being the foremost but the South China Sea is China Sea and a few remaining continental land border issues, as well with India. You know, seems to have backed themselves into a corner. Those things, if they do, in fact, escalate, and they do they…they do speak to sort of the rules-based global order that the U.S. has championed and in which has enabled China to economically grow over the past few decades.
You know, it calls into question that order. And I think you indicated the idea that probably that that order maybe dead and we need to accept it. But it, you know, again, I think that we need to we need to not give up so easily. And I think the point needs to be made whenever it can through U.S. leadership that this has benefited that this, the global, you know, order has benefited China and can continue to benefit China as they grow as a global power. There are again, there’s not this idea that the U.S. is containing China is in the Chinese mind predominantly.
There are probably a quite a few Americans who may entertain that as well but it has never been a U.S. policy to contain China’s rise. So I just see that a lot of these things that are happening are, you know, that the PRC leadership has kind of backed themselves into a corner and has to be feels like that it perceives they have to be hardline about when, in fact, again, I think, U.S. global leadership should continue to reach this idea, you know, of a global order, where both big countries and small countries can advance their interests.
Gregory Poling: So real quick on Clark. And, I mean, a bigger question about the U.S. presence in the Philippines. So we do use Clark. For those who don’t remember, we got kicked out of our bases in Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in mid-90s. We subsequently signed a Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines. So we do have rotational access. We fly P-8s regularly out of Clark and sometimes out of places like Puerto Princesa and Palawan. We do a lot of big military exercises, where we’ll bring combat aircraft in Clark. But all of this is at a relatively small scale.
Actually, by 2020, we might very well lose all access to Clark because right now, it’s being built up into the second major civilian hubs. So they’ve got the civilian airport there that might very well lose us our access. To resolve this problem in 2014, we signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines, which was finally deemed constitutional and signed and then, you know, finalized in 2016. The idea behind this was that the U.S. military would build up facilities and five agreed upon Philippine bases, which would then be used by both sides.
And so we would build hangars, and help do runway improvements, and, you know, forward deploy ammunition. All these things to allow us to do rotational deployments on larger scales of combat aircraft, and patrol aircraft, and things like that. Specifically geared, not just toward the South China Sea, but also toward humanitarian assistance, you know, for the next major typhoon that hits, and the counter-terror cooperation we had in the southern Philippines. All of that is up in the air post-Duterte]
And so we’re still moving forward at a snail’s pace on a couple of those locations. We’re not doing the things we will need to actually have rotational deployments. And so what I worry about is in 2020, we’re gonna wake up and find that because we weren’t really paying attention, we lost our access to Clark. And we didn’t implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement enough. And so again, we don’t have anything closer than Guam when the Chinese are, you know, 50-60 miles off the Philippine coast.
Wenshan Jia: All right. Thank you very much. Thank you. Let’s give them an applause for their expertise.