When China has begun three days of military exercises in the South China Seas in the Gulf of Tonkin in January, some observers say speculated that Beijing was testing the new Biden administration. Harsh words from Beijing accompanied the exercises, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin declaring the exercises were necessary measures to firmly ensure national sovereignty and security.
Even in this context, China’s official position is that it remains committed to a peaceful settlement of the South China Sea problem. And the rhetoric employed by China at different times creates a fascinating contrast. For example, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs affirmed in July 2020, that China does not seek to become a maritime empire and that it treat its neighboring countries equally and exercise the utmost restraint.
How then should we make sense of the conflicting messages coming from Beijing? Most Chinese experts find the speech informative if not about China’s intentions, at least about its aspirations. But what statements indicate China’s true position?
I recently argued in research for the Wilson Center that researchers must assess the content and specificity of Chinese national discourse in addition to the position of the author or speaker involved. To this end, I analyzed all the public speeches made by members of the Communist Party of China Politburo from 2013 to 2018. Xi Jinping led the two Politburos I studied, each with 25 members. Since some members have served in both, this resulted in speeches from 39 unique people.
The ambiguity suggests that leaders want to have maximum flexibility and avoid being stuck by its aggressive rhetoric.
Speeches related to the South China Sea could be separated into those that mention cooperative themes and those that have competitive themes. The cooperative themes have two sub-categories, cooperation and political solutions. The competitive themes have five sub-categories: Sovereignty, Military, Freedom, Tension, and Non-Regional Countries / United States.
In what may sound like good news for regional stability, Chinese leaders have used a more cooperative discourse in public statements on the South China Sea than competitive themes. This could be seen as indicating a willingness to compromise with other claimants, a characteristic which is particularly evident in the first year of each new Party Congress, namely 2013 and 2018.
However, one of the principles for inferring speech intentions is that not all leadership statements are created equal. We have to consider personal power, responsibility and a reputation for honesty. This means that Xi’s statements, which is described as having more power and more personal authority than any post-Mao leader, get the upper hand.
So here is the bad news. My analysis showed that Xis’ statements accounted for 42.7% of the competitive themes discussed, even though he is only one of 39 leaders during this period.
There are additional reasons to dismiss Xis’ cooperative statements: his reputation for dishonesty.
In September 2015, Xi made a public statement to the White House, promising not to militarize the man-made islands that China had built in the South China Sea. Xi declared that the relevant construction activities that China undertakes do not target or affect any country, and China does not intend to continue militarization. Although the wording at the time was deemed new, the commitment is not clear. Then and afterwards, Xi did not promise to freeze dredging, island-building activities in the region, nor did he specify what militarization meant. In May 2019, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford mentionned that China had clearly given up on this commitment given the 10,000-foot runways, munitions storage facilities, routine deployment of missile defense capabilities, aviation capabilities and so on on the islands. My analysis in a precedent Interpreter The article shows that China effectively militarized these islands to establish control over the islands and surrounding waters.
Interestingly, China’s Foreign Ministry also makes more competitive statements than statements of cooperation, contrary to what one would think professional diplomats would lean towards negotiations and reassurance. If soothing language was supposed to mask China’s intentions, the ministry’s statements would be the most likely source. But instead, China appears to be prioritizing articulating its position on sovereignty and making threats at those who violate it rather than reassuring it.
None of this means China will use force in the South China Sea. Statements calling for a firm stance to protect China’s perceived sovereignty in the South China Sea lack specificity, there is no hint of a timeline or preferred methods. Such ambiguity suggests that leaders want to have maximum flexibility and avoid being locked in by his aggressive rhetoric, even if it is. popular with Chinese public. And the Chinese leaders undoubtedly prefer to use diplomatic, legal and economic tools to establish sovereignty over these waters.
But my analysis suggests that China is unlikely to make the necessary compromises on its vast territorial claims in those waters to facilitate a viable diplomatic resolution. Instead, Chinese leaders hope that political, economic and military might convince other countries to adapt to the Chinese position without a fight. And if the other claimants concede in Beijing, it will be more difficult for the United States or Australia to push back China’s position.
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