Strategic Ambiguity in the South China Sea

The following quotation is taken from a good article about the South China Sea issue written by my compatriot Roberto Tofani for Asia Times Online (you can find it here).

… “Big powers have advantages in maintaining strategic ambiguity,” said Huang Jing, director of the Center on Asia and Globalization at the National University of Singapore. He suggests that China has learned how the United States often makes use of strategic ambiguity in its international relations.

The PRC still has to clarify its position on several issues concerning the South China Sea dispute. There are two main questions:

  • What is the exact meaning of the nine-dashed line, on which its claims are based (what is included in it and what not) ?
  • What is China’s interpretation of UNCLOS? The PRC has repeatedly declared that it wants the dispute resolved according to international law. The only international law there is at the moment regulating such disputes is UNCLOS. China’s claims seem to be based more on historical grounds rather than on UNCLOS, which would instead regulate the issue in favour of the other claimants, granting Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia with their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), portions of sea well inside the boundaries of the nine-dashed line . If China would like to have the concept of the EEZ applied to the nine-dashed line it presents as its claim, this would go beyond the territorial waters of Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia as calculated from the coast of these countries (and not from the islands and reefs they claims as theirs).

That is why some strategic ambiguity, at least for the time being, serves PRC interests. Since the actual contended territory isn’t clear, this allows the PRC to continue on its nine-dashed line rhetoric even though this is not exactly in line with maritime legislations and there aren’t enough evidences to support the historical grounds. This keeps the situation volatile enough for Beijing to alternate assertive and cooperative actions and continue its oil-research expeditions whenever it has the opportunity to do so.  I wouldn’t know if the People’s Republic has learnt exactly from the U.S. how to play this strategic ambiguity card in its favour. It is sure, though, that it is much easier for a bigger and richer nation (like PRC or the U.S.) to do so because there’s a much larger and more complicated decision making system over which to diffuse (and thus, in a way, hide) the responsibility for infamous actions or statements. The recent International Crisis Group report “Stirring Up the South China Sea” has pointed exactly to this kind of trend in describing the quantity of actors at stake in the chinese side of the dispute.