EVENT TRANSCRIPT: From Satellites to Ships: China’s Island-Building in the South China Sea
DATE: 6:00 pm – 7:00 pm, 2 May 2019
VENUE: Committee Room 14, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA, United Kingdom
SPEAKER: Gregory B. Poling
EVENT CHAIR: Rt Hon Sir Michael Fallon MP
Sir Michael Fallon: We have a great fortune with us. Dr Poling, director from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, he’s going to make a presentation to us, I think, no more than 10 to 15 minutes, something of that order. and then we are going to open up for discussion, but just before that I’m going to invite Dr Hemmings and James Rogers from the Henry Jackson Society to add a few comments just to get us going. and then we’re going to open up for discussion and that will terminate at 7 O’clock.
Gregory Poling: Thank you all for coming out and thank especially for hosting me in this grand location and Henry Jackson Society for putting this together. I want to talk a bit about first how we got where we are in the South China Sea, why we continue to see this pop up in the papers over and over again, despite the fact that we get seemingly here a clear enunciation from officials on either side of the Atlantic, why exactly we should be putting a series of disputes about coral reefs half way around the world at the top of our agenda? and then where I think things go. Why exactly it is that Washington and London have deep seated fundamental stake here and perhaps it’s been overlooked. So when we discuss the South China Sea, I think it’s important that we talk about two different disputes. On the one hand, we have a series of remarkably complicated territorial disputes, over islands and reefs and rocks, between China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. And nobody outside of those six has any stake in how that issue resolve. it is not for us to say that who owns the Spratly Islands, or who owns the Paracel Islands, the second set of disputes is where we come in, as an international community. And that is the debate over rules and norms applied to the maritime space. We have one party, china, declaring arbitrarily nine dash line that extends one thousand nautical miles from the Chinese coast, without any reference land mass that should generate that, without any coordinates to help us know exactly where it lies, without any legal precedent whatsoever to explain why it is that Beijing deserves five times as large maritime entitlement as any other nation of earth. and within that enormous space, China claims vast, albeit ill-defined, historic rights over all fishing, all sea based resources, and the ability of foreign naval ships to simply transit much less engage in joint-exercises, patrol or anything else. So when we see US vessels sail through South China Sea, or when we sea Albion, for instance, sail Paracel Islands, what they are contesting are not China’s claims to the Islands and the South China Sea, on which we have no stake. They are contesting the fact that China uses those island claims as an excuse to tear apart fundamental pieces of the international order, to stake a claim to a maritime law that would upend essentially half a century of classification of customary law with implications far beyond the South China Sea. Now, the tinder box in the South China Sea, is the Spratly Islands. This is the most hotly contested piece of land in the world and unfortunately for us, it is about two hundred different pieces of land. All of the Spratly islands, everything that sticks above the water high tide, it’s less than two square kilometres, and on those two square kilometres, you have approximately sixty-five or seventy navy outposts built by five different countries. It’s spread across thousands of square nautical miles of space. This dispute is irreconcilable, the history is muddy at best, nobody has an air-tight claim, but it is bristling with military facilities, and there are real possibilities that a misstep could lead a conflict that nobody is frankly looking for, and through all of it, we are going to continue to see the outside parties, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Japan asserting their rights sailing through what just said is a tinder box, so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to frame the disputes correctly, understanding exactly why it is that we care and avoid a kind of loose talk that we sometimes see about how easy they would be to resolve or how little they matter on the other side. The reason why these disputes have emerged as a top tier issue in most capitals, given that they have, they date really back to the treaty of San Francisco at the end of the Second World War. what has changes been that since December of 2013, Beijing has radically upended the status quo in what before that had been an awkward, perhaps unstable, but not overly dangerous dispute. and that is because China decided to build three thousand two hundred acres of new land in the Spratly Islands, and on top of those three thousand two hundred acres of land, they have constructed a series of island bases bristling with military equipment, pointed not just at, not even primarily, at outside parties like the United States, but pointed directly at China’s neighbours, in an effort to compel, intimidate them, to back down and exceed Beijing’s maritime rights. This is (inaudible) reef. I just showed you the before shots. This is the after. This reef had absolutely no land mass above water five years ago. Today, it has about 1500 acres of land above water. To give you a sense of scale, all of Washington D.C. within the beltway, so all of the core of Washington D.C., could fit, with extra space, inside the lagoon at that island. these are enormous islands, they are enormous engineering, as you can imagine ecological disaster. Now since 2016, Beijing more or less completed that first step of that island building campaign. It created new islands, from 2014 to 2016, we were seeing these pictures spread across the front pages of every paper in the world. Chinese bases sprouting up in what had been coral reefs. Since then, largely because the Chinese finished the big island building project, there has been a narrative spread that things have somehow calmed in the South China Sea. It’s not that China has slowed down its militarization. It’s not that china has turned over the reefs and suddenly become more peaceful in its intentions, it’s simply that they finished phase 1 and phase 1 was an easy part to track. Phase 2 is the construction of the military infrastructure. And over the last several years, even as Beijing has opened new avenues for dialogue, bilaterally with its neighbours with the Philippines, multilaterally through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, it has continued to build those military facilities. My initiative mainly uses satellite imagery analysis to track the construction and from January 1st of 2017 to December 31st of 2017, at the same time that Beijing was allegedly involved in good faith negotiations on code of conduct with its neighbours, it built 120 acres of new purely military infrastructure across the largest of its three islands in the South China Sea in the Spratly Islands. this includes hangers for both fighter jets and bombers, it includes buried and hardened storage facilities for ammunition and fuel storage. Hardened missile shelters with retractable roofs to park its anti-cruise missiles and surface area missiles, and an enormous array of signals intelligence and radar capability. To make sure it sees everything that moves above or beneath the South China Sea. These are those three big facilities that I talked about. The red is all the new infrastructure built in just 2017. 2018 opened phase 3. China effectively finished construction of necessary military facilities by mid-2017, and in the first six months of last year, we saw a very rapid pace of deployment of high end military platforms in these, and what is remarkable to me is how little attention it got internationally in the US press, here, in the UK press, we would see these stories for a day and they would be blown out of the papers because of North Korea or Russia, or some other matter. But when you staple them altogether and look at what happened last year, the Chinese deployed military aircraft for the first time, military transport and patrolling aircraft to all three of the islands, no fighter jets yet but they constructed the hanger that is clearly intended for them. the Chinese put advanced (inaudible) platforms on two of these three facilities which are still there, still messing with planes that go overhead. They deployed anti-ship cruise missiles, and surface area missiles on three of the big islands, and they seriously increased the size and the pace of their deployments of naval coast guard and most amazingly to me, maritime militia vessels and maritime militia vessels are essentially Chinese state subsidized fishing fleets, that don’t fish. all they do is hang out in the Spratly Islands and intimidating neighbours and reporting back to the CCG and to PLA when they see things. This has come under focus especially over the last six months. In December, of last year, the Philippines finally started long needed upgrades to the runway they have on the islands, the biggest of the facilities that they occupy. It’s got about a hundred civilians, a small group of military personnel. It’s also about 12 miles from one of those big three Chinese bases. The Chinese response was immediate. The Chinese deployed a fleet of, this image is from December, about 95 boats in that shot, but there have been around a 100 on the big days of these militia vessels. They pour out of the lagoon and nearby reef, they park within two to five nautical miles of Philippine held island and they haven’t moved for about five months. They rotate in and out but they never show any sign of fishing, they never show any sign of patrolling, all they do is sit there, report back and stare down the Philippines in the hopes that Manila would abandon these efforts to upgrade the facilities. And this strikes at the heart of China’s intentions here. Beijing wants to establish dominance in peace time over the entire the nine dash line that I showed you, which counts about 80 percent of South China Sea and it wants to do that in a way that pushed the Philippines, the Vietnamese, the Malaysians out of their own waters, undermine the regime of the international law that China helped to negotiate in 1982, UNCLOS, and do it without firing a shot. Effectively convincing the region that the outside powers, the US in particular, are not capable nor willing to defend their acts. so when we see US vessels engage in freedom of navigation operations and sail through the South China Sea, or when we see the Albion sail through the South China Sea, on a freedom of navigation operation, that is helpful in the necessary step, but if you are a Southeast Asian fisher, you’re asking “what good does that do to me?” It is necessary but very insufficient peace of South China Sea policy. And if we look out ten years, if matters don’t change and if china doesn’t suddenly wake up tomorrow and decide to stop bullying its neighbours, the South China Sea will be a Chinese, I mean nobody will engage in any economic economy, within the South China Sea, without China’s forbearance. and the US navy and the Royal Navy, and JMSDF, and the Australians will continue to sail through the South China Sea. and that’s not going to matter one bit to the Philippines or to Malaysia or to Vietnam, who will have lost their EEZ and China will have become unique in the world in getting to establish its own set of rules that applies only in East Asia, all other international community did very little. Let me just leave this up here. it’s a historical reminder of what we are dealing with. Beijing has built the only large maritime militia in the world, purposely engaging in coercion and intimidation and occasionally violence against its neighbours and harassment of passing navy ships, all while staying just below the level of kinetic force. Making it impossible for outsider powers to understand the rules of the engagement, making it difficult, if not impossible for the US to invoke its mutual defence treaty with the Philippines, and all in the hopes of convincing the region that it has already won, that it’s just the matter of when they realize it, not if. The endgame here is to cleave the alliances that the US has established in the region, carve off separate Chinese regime, make the America look like a paper tiger, effectively force us to operate from what we call the second island chain, Guam and Hawaii, because we would have lost the Philippine alliance and out credibility in Japan, in Australia and elsewhere would have been seriously undermined. and so when we think of why this matters, why does this matter to London, why does this matter to Washington, it is not about the Chinese islands. it is frankly not even about the Chinese militarization of the islands. we have to live with those bases now. They built them already, we had a chance, we did nothing, they won that round. Ultimately the reason why South China Sea matters is because it strikes at the heart of the international rules based order, which we built since WWII, precisely to prevent the return to the kind of Great Power competition that China is hoping to rekindle. If China is allowed to carve out an exemption to one of the most universally accepted set of rules in the world, which is the customary maritime law, that is codified in UNCLOS, the idea that your land determines how much ocean you get and that everybody, big or small, gets the same amount of the ocean, and beyond those areas, which end at 200 nautical miles, we have maritime commons to be shared by the all the mankind. if Beijing gets to say no, I decided that I want a thousand miles from the coastline of water and you are going to accept it just because I’m willing to take the risks, then we’re going to look back in twenty or thirty years, at the power transition in Asia, the collapse of the international order, and we are going to wander how we have let ourselves sleep walk into this, because regime of rules that doesn’t apply to all, ultimately applies to none. and I will wrap there.
Sir Michael Fallon: Dr Poling, thank you very much. and Let’s have short responses first.
John Hemmings: I will keep it very shot. I suppose, thank you very much, Greg, as always I find you’re a man of strategic understanding, and also the data sets you keep are very useful for us on this side, where we don’t have as much access to satellite data. It strikes me that the question, it sounds like you’ve heard today and the question that keeps going through our minds and the minds of many people thinking about the South China Sea and the broader strategic challenge to which China presents, the global orders, is there a way to shape China , how do we shape Chinese behaviour, you know, certainly the threshold of war is one that no one wishes to cross, and that you don’t have to answer this, maybe I could pose it to the room and maybe it can inform the ensuing discussions, you know, until recently my impression has been that you can shape China for short term bursts, we’ve seen the Belt Road Initiative Forum, Xi Jinping’s speech was a seeming response to the complaints of dead diplomacy where he seemed to indicate the willingness to negotiate in better faith, much more transparent, much more clear and much more fair contracts with countries on terms of infrastructure deals, but then there is always the problem, for example, the cyber deal with the US and China that president Obama had negotiated, we know that there was a spike of understanding there, a spike of moving towards each other, and then very gradually that behaviour returned. So, I guess the question is can we shape China, that seems to be the question that I propose to you and in your responses maybe if you would allude to it, I would be very grateful.
James Rogers: I’ll just make a brief comment as well, and it seems to me that it’s not just the case of finding ways of shaping China, but also finding ways to prevent China from shaping us. Not only other countries in the region, the Indo-Pacific region, but also the countries like the UK, and European countries. I think we need a great deal more in the coming years, and I don’t think we have too many years left to do this, and that is to understand the linkages between the economic and strategic components of our foreign and defence policies, and I think that somehow they have come out of an alignment and we want to ease it too. and the other thing I would say is, I think we need to find ways to close a political system and the broader civil society to Chinese pressure and infiltration and particularly Chinese divide and rule tactics, and I think we can see some of these increasingly through our media and through the ways in which the media responds to things that China has done and responding to things that we might think, things that are probably outdated and established ideas about how interact with the world and so on and so forth. What I’m trying to say is that South China Sea can’t be seen as an independent thing on its own, but rather as part of a far broader set of issues that we need to contend with over the years ahead.
Audience 1: My name is Richard Garber. Two very simple questions. do you see any similarities between what’s going on now and what happened with the Japanese in that in similar area in the early 30s and any reason why the US and its allies can’t do exactly the same as what the Chinese are doing and actually go and found areas where they can build islands?
Gregory Poling: So if you were to ask Prime minister Abe of Japan or occasionally former president Aquino of Philippines you would hear this talk about a return to a pre-World War II competition in Asia. I think that there is some truth to that, but I think we should be careful about the way we frame Chinese interest. There are individual constituencies within China a great many of them who care about the different aspects about the South China Sea. So for the PLA, this is largely about power projections, naval capabilities, it’s about pushing the US beyond the first island chain. For Chinese owned oil and gas enterprises this is about sea resources, but none of those things in isolation, including the security aspect, which we hear the most often about, none of them explain what I just showed you, none of them explain why China’s willing to go such great lengths to insist on fishing rights in the South China Sea or oil and gas rights, in fact many of these activities, I would argue, undermine that position, because one could imagine in alternative timeline, in which 10 years ago China had instead of pushing Philippines and Vietnam around on these economic issues, had cut a deal, guaranteeing China’s military influence, in exchange for backing off on the economic, but they haven’t done that. Instead, they push their neighbours so hard, the neighbours are welcoming the US back into the region militarily, in a way that we haven’t been since the end of the Vietnam War, so I don’t think that we can see this strictly through the military prism.
Audience 2: Your presentation rests on two key cornerstones, if you’d like, one is the international rules based order which is of course widely disputed on basic evidence, and the other is the singular China, and I just wanted to focus on the latter point. why do you presume that there is a singular Chinese policy when all around us we see governments that are complex, intra-institutional struggles between competing agencies, departments, enterprises, the PLA is not the necessarily singing from the same (inaudible) as the MFA in Beijing. Particular Chinese regions that spend 85 % of China’s budget have got their own interest and agenda at heart, so why do we presume that somehow mystically in the age of complexity, globalization, and fragmentation of governments internationally somehow China maintains a singular perspective?
Gregory Poling: Well, I think I just said that China does not have a singular perspective, that multiple stake holders within government, with out of government have different approach in the South China Sea that all help drive the ship in the general direction, but at the helm of that ship is Xi Jinping. And there is no denying that since Xi Jinping’s accession of power, China has been far more willing to pursue South China Sea claims with a greater appetite for risk, for instance, Xi Jinping and the vice president took the lead on arranging China’s response in the (inaudible) crisis. Xi Jinping established a standing committee on ocean affairs with himself at the top. Xi Jinping has greenlighted military construction activities that Hu Jintao has said were too risky. And Xi Jinping has place South China Sea as one of the issues firmly at the heart of his rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, so this does clearly matter to (inaudible) and it is the one pushing this in a way that would allow all these other stake holders to get their own piece of the South China Sea issue.
Rogers: Maybe I can just say one thing, to my mind it doesn’t necessarily matter whether there is, what was it you said, complexity in relation to what is happening in China itself or the way various Chinese agencies and actors within China respond. I think what matters is actually what’s happening on the ground and we can see that very clearly with the satellite and aerial photography images.
Audience 2: Thank you very much indeed. I’m a former law enforcement to (inaudible). I saw in Malaka city last autumn, last summer, the sheer scale of China’s investment. my question is based around your point that seemed to suggest that it may be close to game over in the South China Sea. Do you see any signs that the fishing boats and maritime militia are starting to operate in the Indian ocean or at least the south of Malay barrel? And secondly, where do you see technological development in relation to the ability to submarines to operate in the South China Sea? because I hear that the Chinese are putting a lot of effort to convince (inaudible) from the lagoons or very close to it.
Gregory Poling: So, we have seen no evidence yet that maritime militia operates outside China’s near waters. So that includes South China Sea, East China Sea, to a degree maybe the Yellow Sea. the vessels are modern they are well equipped, but they are not as large as most of the water fleets, so you would know this if whole bunch of fifteen meter vessels had joined a normally hundred metre vessels that we have seen in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. That doesn’t mean it is not going to happen. if China either decides that it has accomplished its goals in the South China Sea, or that it’s going to cut a deal in the South China Sea, and in a more silver lining scenario, it has a fleet of about five hundred vessels sitting there, in which it has sunk hundreds of billions of dollars in capital, they will have to go do something. And I think that we should all be worried, even if they just have become fishers, well they have just enormously ballooned the size of an already too large existent water fleet that is getting itself into trouble around the world. So these are problems that are not going away. On the submarine front I will just say that we must presume that the Chinese have strong sonar rays from all of these islands in Spratlys and Paracels, just as I can document that the Chinese can see everything that can move on and above the ocean. I think we must assume that the Chinese also hear everything that moves below it.
Audience 3: I’m a Japanese journalist. You were talking about several hundred fishing boats are coming. and also I have (inaudible). so how the Chinese authority (inaudible).
Gregory Poling: So when I talk about the maritime militia, I think I should be clear, this is not a term of art. This is a statutory arm of People’s Liberation Army, written into Chinese law, that has been around for decades. I’m not saying that there are fishermen who are nationalistic and helping them do this. I’m saying that there are fishermen that do not fish, whose boats are payed for by the Chinese state, either by the provincial, central or more often both subsidies and who fall directly under the command of either Chinese Coast Guard or the PLA, in certain scenarios. Now, some of these vessels come from a handful of fishing villages in Hainan, and in woody island in Paracel as well as in (inaudible) in the eastern sea coast, and they only operate as militia. Others fish part of the time. they are effectively a reserve force, but when they are pulled up, they are under the direct command of PLA, they receive PLA training, often they wear uniforms. There should be no doubt about whether or not these are acting as an arm of the state. And the same goes for the coast guard, which, as many of you might know, recently came under the direct control of the Chinese military commission. So there is no pretending that the coast guards are anything but a military (inaudible).
Audience 4: My name is John Dobson, for the Indian newspaper called the Sunday Guardian. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of Graham Allison’s book about the Thucydides’ trap. He uses this area as the main thrust of his argument about the Athens-Sparta, America-China analogy, which leads to war. Do you subscribe to Allison’s theory?
Gregory Poling: No, I think that Graham Allison’s work alongside other’s in what in the IR business is called power transition theory do a very good job in highlighting dangers for us. But, generally the sample size is about 13. We haven’t had that many great power transitions and there are almost as many exceptions as to the rule that they point out as there are nations that followed it. the US and the UK being the most recent. So, I don’t think that history is doomed to repeat itself here. We are smarter, and more importantly, we spent the last seventy-five years establishing regime of rules and norms to prevent exactly this kind of thing. The point being, nobody else has built the system that is meant to undergird stability in a way that we in the international community have. So I wouldn’t count us out.
Audience 4: Sure, but he actually may come back, I mean, he quotes 8 or 10 examples in history when people are being fairly relaxed as you are about it, when it has actually happened. and he would argue that there is a danger.
Gregory Poling: Yes, and I agree. I don’t want to come off as relaxed. I want to say that power transition is not an inevitability. that we must, and by we, I think we have to recognize that the US is not necessarily just the great power. We have a multipolar world underpinned by the post-WWII system. That must arouse itself. and the difficulty there is that if it is just the US, we will fail. if we fail our partners, we will fail. So we must recognize the danger, but that does not mean that we can’t meet it.
Audience 5: (inaudible). The initial map you depicted of the South China Sea showed that the EEZ claims of the states. Missing from that map was a territorial claim that predates all those EEZ claims, known as the Cloma claim. This was established in 1956. It was registered. The maritime boundaries were registered with the UK (inaudible). So the maritime boundaries are established and recognized. Yet, the academic research these days tends only the footnote (inaudible) claim as an interesting historical item, but it has not certainly examined as a preceding claim in the region. (crosstalk).
Gregory Poling: I would be happy to do so now. And apologies to my Philippines colleagues in advance. So the claim refers to the claim of Juan Thomas Cloma, Philippine businessman, who claimed to have discovered the Spratly Islands, or at least some of them, as terra nullius, meaning unclaimed land, in 1956, along with his sons, established what he called the Freedom Land, a new sovereign nation in the centre of the South China Sea. Unfortunately for Thomas Cloma, we already had pre-existing claims in 1932 and 1935 by the French. The Vietnamese would then claim to be its successors to that claim. We already had the claim by the Chinese in response to that French claim, and the Chinese would argue that theirs is more ancient, but it is not. And we already had a previous Philippines’ claim in 1946 by Elpidio Quirino, the vice president of Philippines, so Thomas Cloma was making an independent claim to terra nullius, already claimed by three separate countries. Now, the fact that he may or may not have attempted to get international recognition for that claim is irrelevant. No nation ever recognized the claim, including his own, and the fact that he was forced to sell his claim for, I believe, one dollar or one peso to Marcoist regime after sitting in jail for a while, you know, having agreed to do that, and was then used as a basis for Marcos to strengthen these pre-existing 1946 claim. So I think the Cloma claim is a perfect example of what I earlier said that all the claims are muddied and no one has a particularly strong claim. and I would welcome any attempt to bring this to arbitration to the ICJ, but that’s not in the cards.
Audience 5: You very helpfully told us about the intimidation of the nations to China. In your opinion, are any of those countries (inaudible) on the verge of cracking or what’s your opinion of their reaction to the intimidation tactics so far?
Gregory Poling: I think that the Philippines is of the most concern here, because ultimately the two countries that must stay in the fight, so to speak, for any of hope of success, are Vietnam and the Philippines. Malaysia has not been and is not going to be proactive here. Brunei, we cannot expect to be proactive here. And the Indonesians only care when it comes to the fishing sites. So you must maintain Hanoi and Manila in any coalition that attempts to urge China toward a different path. The Vietnamese are, I’m quite confident, going to continue to object the Chinese claims with whatever tools that they have in their disposal. In the Philippines, (inaudible) government and it has taken the position that the American alliance, which is their only deterrent, and I think that we must recognize that the Pilipino military has no option, but to call on the Americans in case of hostilities that that is not credible. The US has no intention of actually backing the Philippines, should the Chinese use force, and therefore, the only rational option left for Manila is to find a (inaudible) with Beijing on whatever terms being offered. Now, I and most Filipinos, according to the surveys, disagree with that assessment and I think that that is why the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to Manila after the failed negotiations with North Korea in Hanoi and issued a clear clarification that yes, our alliance does apply in the case of South China Sea. But both Americans and those on the Philippines side who would like to see this alliance remain strong have a lot of work to do ensuring support, because in fairness to the Filipinos, if you can imagine a scenario, for instance, in which the Chinese try to engage in this kind of intimidation, and the Philippines sent a ship out. A coast guard vessel or whatever, and the Chinese open fire, call their bluff. Whatever Philippine leader that is, just went on a very long limb, with no hope of competing with the Chinese on the basis of the promise from the Americans and if you turn around to Americans don’t come over to the horizon, what is he to do?
Audience 6: Good morning, (inaudible), a former British diplomat. I’m not an expert in this field, but just standing back, my mind is boggled by why China should have transformed what was peaceful and mutually advantageous situation into one of intense confrontation. Very often in China, Chinese foreign policy major initiatives, we have to seek domestic motivations for foreign policy initiatives, then what I can see is that the Chinese leadership has a lot of problems at home, which we don’t hear about, but needs external tension. It needs a situation and it has engineered a situation where it can ratchet it up a tension at any time, more or less, on its own choosing, in a broad area of the world. And I think that if we are to develop a strategy, a counter-strategy, then we have to take into account of the domestic roles of that policy. I’m hoping that the chairman is not (inaudible) without having answered the question what we are to do about this.
Gregory Poling: Let me quickly address both of those points then. There is certainly a domestic driver here. I don’t necessarily think that it is that the party and Xi Jinping, in particular, is looking to pick a military fight to shore up a shrinking legitimacy as he looks ahead to (inaudible), although that argument does have some merit, perhaps, I think what is driving this is certainly nationalism, it is a sense that the South China Sea, among other things, has tucked into this new narrative. The South China Sea has been tucked into this new narrative of China’s dream. The revitalization of the Chinese nation, which has become Xi Jinping’s trademark. this is his claim to the continued legitimacy of the party, his continued rule that China is finally putting to bed the humiliations of the past. And the South China Sea, despite the fact that it is a fiction, the South China Sea story has become a part of that narrative. And they are not going to abandon that narrative any time soon. So when we talk about why the Chinese do this, I said fundamentally military doesn’t explain all of their activities. The economic activities don’t explain all of their activities. The only thing that explains all of China’s activities is raw nationalism. They want it because they convinced themselves that it is theirs. And they have taught their children, falsely, that it is theirs, for the last several decades, it shored up (inaudible). And if we hope to see Beijing reach an agreement with the neighbours that we the international community can live with, we will have to find some face-saving offering for them. Beijing will need to be able to claim historic rights, it will need to be able to maintain its claim to (inaudible) in a way that still allows the fishing and gas operations with its neighbours (inaudible). And this is possible, if difficult. So what do we do about this? Continued military activities are necessary. The US and partner nations must continue to sail through the South China Sea to assert that we do not recognize the Chinese claim. We must continue to support the capacity building efforts of our Southeast Asian partners. They are not going to be able to stand up to the PLA, but we can at least help them keep an eye on PLA and maintain some basic access to their own waters, but outside and we must of course deter, that is where the US and the Philippines come in, we must deter violence, but outside of that, none of that is going to change Beijing’s calculus. We must return the South China Sea to the top of the diplomatic agenda. We should be talking about this the way we talk about North Korea and Russia and other issues that international (inaudible). And we did. In 2016, the EU issued a statement calling on China to comply with 2016 arbitral award that the Philippines won. The G7 in Japan issued a similar statement, and since that day, no European nation except the UK has reiterated that call. Of the G7 members, where are the French, where are the Italians? Why are we letting other parts of the international system off the hook? If they can finger wag the Russians, they can finger wag the Chinese. The other thing that we must to is to seek ways to levy economic cost, by which I mean sanction individual Chinese state-owned companies for engaging in an illegal construction and other activities in (inaudible). Hope that we can start changing the cost-benefit analysis in Beijing, make it clear to China that it should find face saving way out of this (inaudible), or it is going to undermine its larger interest in being seen as a global leader.
Audience 7: (inaudible). You haven’t mentioned United Nations, (inaudible).
Gregory Poling: I think that the UN plays a role here, but only in as much as the claimants themselves want to make the UN play a role here. So, while of course, Chinese have a veto in the Security Council and you will not pass any international sanctions through the UN, although we could pursue the sanctions outside the UN. The UN’s role would ultimately be, if Manila decides that it really wanted to start raising its arbitral award again, it won a case that said China’s claims are illegal and they stopped talking about it. Now, the US can speak from the experience. It is very embarrassing when you have to deal with annual UN votes demanding that you abide by the international ruling. We did it throughout the first Bush administration after we loss the ICJ case to Nicaragua for its support for the Contras. And it happened year in and year out, and by the end, even the UK was abstaining from the votes, because it has become so embarrassing to support the Americans. So imagine a year in and year out vote demanding Chinese compliance to the South China Sea ruling, in which only the Chinese and its clients like Cambodia vote no. That becomes enormously embarrassing. That is the kind of a thing that pushes great powers to find face saving ways out. Just like we did. We came into compliant with the ruling, without ever admitting that that was what we were doing, because we were not going to say that we listened to the ICJ, but we did listen to the ICJ.I would think that the first thing is that the Philippines need to raise it before the General Assembly, because nobody the US or anybody else can have credibility to fight on behalf of the Philippines if won’t fight on its own behalf. You could never imagine America stand up in the US and against the wishes of the Philippines demanding of the motion calling for Chinese compliance. So ultimately this rests with Manila.
Audience 8: I was wondering what will have to happen for the navies in the South China Sea to ask for the US (inaudible). and how would China react to that?
Gregory Poling: I think you probably need to have overt hostilities, that we would already see bullets flying for that to happen. It’s unnecessary. I mean, in 2014, the US and the Philippines negotiated an enhanced defence cooperation agreement. That agreement was supposed to allow the US rotational deployments of air and naval assets through five Pilipino bases. It is not being implemented. If we are rotating US aircrafts through (inaudible) we wouldn’t need to be right there in (inaudible) we would be twenty minutes away. And right now, the problem is, even if we act, we have clarified that the treaty applies in the South China Sea, even if we do everything else to try to make that credible, at the end of the day, the Chinese have military bases twenty miles from Philippine bases. Our closest ground based assets are 1,500 miles away in Guam or 1,300 miles away in Okinawa. We won’t be there until the fighting stops. So it’s not about when we’re on the islands, but we certainly need to be in the region.
Hemmings: If I may, I know that it’s not something that I would normally do and Michael, you can certainly push back, but I know that we have actually, yourself as a former secretary of defence whose overseeing of this history of the South China Sea from UK government perspective, in so much as you can from the open source, and from how you have seen the debate, that you are willing to tell us, just because many of us kind of track things through the media, could you, if you would allow, could you run us through the development of the UK’s, under your watch, interests and the development of the debate and why it, on the South China Sea, leading up to the (inaudible). I know that’s very unfair.
Sir Michael Fallon: Without warning. I can certainly, I was a secretary of state from ‘14 to ‘17 when all of this intimidating started and I was very clear that if we are going to react successfully to it, we needed to do things together. We needed internationally to put pressure on China to understand that one day, it may want to rely on the role of the sea conventions on the rules-based order as it develops (inaudible) navy in the Indian Ocean and Antarctica and so on, and I would be interested in your response to that, because that was the doctrine that we had to try and get China to understand
that there was a self-interest there in these international conventions. But secondly, we had to strengthen our presence in the region. I flew typhoons through the South China Sea to do a joint
exercise with Japan and one of the key things of 2015 strategic (inaudible) is that we promoted our relationships with both Australia and Japan, which we haven’t previously done. We now conduct much more regular exercises with both of those countries. and we are talking on negotiating common defence procurement on missile system in Japan and indeed (inaudible). So, that was the other parliament. But if we are going to do this successfully, I think that it can only be done, without sending one ship through and then another ship for another two years, doesn’t cut it. I mean I think these things have got to be done with your allies. They have got to be properly funded, if we are going
to have a base in the Indo-Pacific, then extra money has got to be funded for it. And thirdly, it’s got to be done coherently, with the rest of the Whitehall policy. We can’t have a defence policy about
Indo-Pacific, or a foreign policy that is different from our trade policy, and we have got to be absolutely clear-eyed so there is no misunderstanding in China, and approach these things as rigorously as
I think the historians do. I think very strong commercial relationship with China, but equally, there are limits beyond which they will not go at. So that’s where we have gone to, up to 2017.
Audience 9: I think that a lot of discussion we had today is about claims, validations, and also methods on claiming islands. Have you ever heard of Diego Garcia? Historically, the methods of claiming islands and (inaudible) also the intimidation to build military base, it’s really to what we have discussed today. So hypothetically, if today’s this Spratly Islands as a (inaudible) base, what could anyone or any countries do?
Gregory Poling: Well, let me push back. I don’t think that there is much similarity at all between the history of British colonization or lack thereof of Maldives and Diego Garcia and China’s claims to the South China Sea. As I said in the beginning of my talk, the US does not care about China’s claims for Spratly Islands, neither does any other outside party, as long as China doesn’t use military forces against our ally, we couldn’t care less if China maintains claims to all the islands in the South China Sea for the next two hundred years. What the US cares about is that China helped negotiate a treaty, China ratified that treaty, that treaty is a codification of international law that virtually all nations in the world have agreed to, that the ICJ among other said that even those nations who haven’t agreed to it
are bound by it, because it is a customary law. The very same ICJ, who issued an advisory opinion ruling against continued British administration of Chagos Archipelago. If Britain is claiming thousand
miles of space of air and water rights from Chagos Archipelago, I would say that you have a point, but they don’t. These are two territorial disputes that do not really involve the international
community except China has over top of it, this maritime dispute that strikes fundamentally at the heart of the regime of the international law.
Audience 10: (inaudible- loud background noise) Taiwan is also occupy the largest island (inaudible) so how do you deal with this situation?
Gregory Poling: Taiwan is in tough position itself and puts the international community in a tough position on the South China Sea. As you indicated, it was the Republic of China, who in 1947, officially codified the then eleven dash line as limited Chinese claims. That was accepted then by the PRC in ’52 after the civil war. At the time, the title of the map was a map of China’s southern islands. It had nothing to do with the waters or the sea bed or the airspace. The claim has evolved. The idea of a historic rights as a PRC invention started in the 90s, although it is worth knowing that it came from Taiwanese intellectuals, but Taiwan very explicitly rejected the idea of inserting historic rights into its own law of sea in the mid-1990s. So the assumption is that Taiwan’s claim, Taiwan believes its claim to the U-shaped line is only a claim that island (inaudible). And that gets back to my first point that we don’t as an international community, I mean, it may or may not be the strongest claim that has nothing to do with the (inaudible) parties. China has this separate claim which has extended to include all the waters, all the air space, some kind of vague historic rights. It would, on the one hand, be helpful for Taiwan to point that out. For Taiwan to throw open the palace archive and say here is the original documentations of the committee of land and water, set up in ’29, who made this map in the first place. And they never were claiming water or space. At the same time, Taiwan is under daily threat of amphibious assault from China. Taiwan has bigger worries in a (inaudible) relationship than poking Beijing in the eye over the South China Sea. And so as much as it might benefit the international community or the Philippines or Vietnam, I think it’s unrealistic for us to expect that Taipei is going to step forward and put its head in the noose to contradict the Chinese any time soon.
Sir Michael Fallon: I sense that we are moving towards the end and I want to give the panel couple of minutes each perhaps just for final reflexions, but if there’s anybody else who hasn’t had a chance to ask a question? No? Okay, let me start at the far end, James. Any further thoughts?
James Rogers: Maybe I could go back to the question you asked about the Thucydides’ traps. I think I agree with Greg that this isn’t pre-ordained. But I would suggest that the logical conclusion is that although we may not be heading towards a war, it is likely that we’re going to be heading towards a period of competition, which would include all sorts of different components, and I think that that is the issue that we need to come to terms with. And also that China is not a normal country in a sense that being a liberal democratic state, and because of that, we need to understand that it may see the world in a different way than we do, and therefore we need to be prepared for all eventualities and if we are prepared for eventualities, then, that means the likelihood of confrontation in the longer term becomes less likely.
Hemmings: I suppose I wanted to tear a little bit at the thread of why is China doing this and probably a more philosophical thinking and projecting, because it is of course very hard to identify what nation’s motivations are for given actions particularly when there is a bureaucratic coalitions within states and the answers get very complex very quickly, but I suppose just if we were to pull back and examine in a grand strategy for a moment, it does strike me that the first island chain and the maritime order and the port strategy, the Belt and Road Initiative, we do see some sort of plan emerging, and I think it is quite interesting from an IR perspective, but it is also in some extent a little bit worrying and concerning, because, you know, I don’t use the word empire here lightly, but it does have a flavour of what we have seen great powers attempt establish in historical time to be certainly a Mahanian flavour to it, and of course Mahan was mostly writing about the US and the Royal Navy, empires of the late 19th century. So, to some extent, I suppose when we look at the South China Sea, I try to pull back further and try to understand what is the strategic intention here. Of course there is a domestic drivers and there are drivers that relate in terms to parties, as you said, nationalists and post-humiliation narratives, but what are the strategic drivers beside power projections? Of course, Taiwan comes immediately to mind, but the other thing that strikes me, of course, is the Mahanian idea that he who controls the sea, controls trade, and controls trade, controls power. I suppose if it were a democratic China to some extent, many of us would welcome that, but the fact that it’s an authoritarian China that happens to be doing this is most concerning, because, in my humble opinion, the regime type matters. States that become great powers, their regime type impacts the type of order they project out into the world, so you see, for example, under the US watch, a very pluralistic quasi-democratic international society with lots of rules and institution which kind of reflects the way liberal democracies run their own domestic affairs. So what type of power, what kind of diplomacy, what kind of rules-based order, is it going to be a power based order or is it going to be a hierarchical order? Will we see a revival of Tiensha with very hierarchical, China at the centre, and very kind of, directives and almost kind of ordering of peripheral states, so that China’s preferences are always at the top and will this Chinese lake, as you mentioned, essentially be a self-contained economic zone to which Indian, British, and European ships must sail only at the sufferance of Beijing? Will the states that are under this lake in the Philippines, in Vietnam, will they essentially become kind of a tributary system 2.0, where they have nominally an independence, but they have to tug the floor lock if they ever wanted to do something that is perhaps challenging to Beijing’s policy preferences? So with that said, I put that question out there as a quite a concern.
Gregory Poling: Let me come back to the question you asked me, which I think strikes at the heart of the matter, right? China’s adherence or lack thereof to UNCLOS, and will as China emerge as a great power, does China feel more heart of the system? Does it feel more a part of the system? Does it feel invested protecting the system? Or does it want to overturn it? And with each passing year, I think it becomes clear that what China wants is the maintenance of the system, outside of Beijing. The system has worked for China. The system helped China grow. The system helped China’s remarkable emergence. China in the case of UNCLOS helped negotiate the system. The US didn’t like UNCLOS. The UK didn’t like UNCLOS. UNCLOS was a grand bargain struck between the global navies of the world, who wanted the three-mile territorial sea that it has always been, the (inaudible) rule, and nothing else. And the coastal states like China, who wanted 200-mile territorial sea, and it compromised and it established EEZ. What changed is that China has not emerged as a great power. And China decided that the rules no longer benefit China, as much as they did. So those rule should no longer apply to Asia. And what this strikes at is as John just said, is that the way a regime operates internally is generally reflected in the way that it operates externally, and anybody that who has lived or worked in China knows that China is not a nation ruled by laws, in the sense that there is not a rule of law. The law is a tool of power, to be used by the leaders when necessary and abandoned when inconvenient. It does not apply to all. It was never intended to be such. And what Beijing seems to want is the same applying in international order. But I think from the Western perspective, from the liberal democratic perspective, that is not sustainable. If you carve out a China sized hole in all the rules, the rules will unravel, inevitably. Because the rules will pretty soon not apply in the arctic and they won’t apply in the Persian Gulf, and they won’t apply to anybody with big ships and the willingness to say no. So are we willing to accept that future or not? And if not, the South China Sea has to be where you draw the first line.
Sir Michael Fallon: Well, thank you very much. Under the rules of the House, we have to draw proceedings to a close now. I’m sorry that we haven’t ended on a more optimistic note. We have certainly set out the problem, and perhaps pointed the way to the better understanding of it. And for that I think we are in debt of our panel tonight. James and John, to my left, but above all, to Greg for sharing his expertise with us. Thank you all very much.