Thayer Consultancy

ABN # 65 648 097 123

Background Brief South China Sea: Who Will Flinch First? Carlyle A. Thayer January 25, 2014

[client name deleted] We are preparing a report on how China's strategy towards trhe South China Sea compares to a game of chicken--daring rivals to flinch first. It's an analogy that has been widely used. We request your assessment of this analogy and how the US could/should respond to this strategy. 1.) Several incidents in the last few months (USS Cowpens, declaration of Air Defence Identification Zone [ADIZ], Hainan province's assertion of control over South China Sea fisheries) have shown China making provocative moves toward its neighbors. What is the underlying strategy here? Is it working? ANSWER: The latest examples of Chinese assertiveness are part of China's strategy of "legal warfare". This term is used by Chinese defense planners. It refers to employing Chinese domestic legislation as a justification for asserting its sovereignty claims. It is an attempt to deflect criticism that China is acting aggressively. China merely responds to foreign criticism by arguing that its actions are legal. Chinese domestic laws and regulations are then enforced by state civilian law enforcement agencies, now regrouped into a national Coast Guard. China's strategy works best against weak states who do not have the means to respond. It presents an asymmetric challenge to the US because if the US Navy uses warships it will be seen as escalating the dispute. Even though China was challenged by the US, Japan and South Korea over its ADIZ when they flew aircraft through the zone, most notably B-52 bombers, the ADIZ remains in place. If there is an aerial confrontation Chinese propagandists will argue that China was justified in enforcing its laws. 2.) It has been said that one element of China's strategy is to push its rivals (Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, US) until they have no choice but to withdraw, or escalate, risking conflict. To what extent is this strategy being used against the US? What, in your view, would be the right US response? ANSWER: China's has a long-term strategy that was once called "creeping assertiveness" or "talk and take" by regional security analysts. China puts unrelenting pressure of the Philippines in the expectation that some future post-Aquino Administration will just acquiesce to China's annexation of Scarborough Shoal and

2 Second Thomas Shoal. China applies pressure on Vietnam to forestall its alignment with the US. China plays on Vietnamese concerns that alignment with the US will result in Chinese pressures. Chinese pressure on Japan is aimed at getting the Abe government to recognise that there is a territorial dispute and it must open discussions with China. Chinese pressure on Vietnam, the Philippines, and the US is designed to make the US consider whether its support for these three countries is worth pursuing over the prospects of better relations with China. In all cases China is hoping to disrupt US relations with its allies (Japan and the Philippines) and to make Vietnam pause about developing closer defense-security relations with the U.S. China would like to see its suzerainty accepted as the first step towards dominating East Asia in coming decades.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “South China Sea: Who Will Flinch First?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, January 25, 2014. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful