Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: Calling for Calm amid South China Sea Storm, Xi Unleashes Diplomatic Offensive

Zack Bluestone
Friday, November 13, 2015, 6:48 AM

Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi (Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)

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Xi Jinping and Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi (Photo: Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images)

Over recent weeks, it has become increasingly clear that the PRC hopes to stave off further setbacks in the South China Sea through a diplomatic blitzkrieg. Bloomberg’s Donald Kirk does an excellent job of cataloging the recent overtures of Xi Jinping and his top lieutenants to the key players in the South China Sea, with recent visits to both neighboring countries and the United States. Kirk explains that, “[w]hile making no compromises, Xi at least [has] made clear he really doesn’t want to see war breaking out.” Further, the PRC President has also managed to “show off Chinese forbearance and patience in the face of the challenge of the U.S.”

Three specific diplomatic missions warrant a closer look:

Vietnam. Last week, Mr. Xi travelled to Vietnam for a two-day summit—the first such trip by a PRC President in a decade. Although the visit was largely motivated by fallout stemming from maritime tensions, Mr. Xi made no explicit mention of the South China Sea. He did, however, tell the National Assembly that their joint-revolutionary friendship could overcome any “disruptions.” Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong—who heads Vietnam’s pro-China faction—urged Mr. Xi not militarize the South China Sea and to ensure that territorial disputes don’t damage cultural, ideological and economic ties with neighbors. On Friday, both sides issued a joint statement, agreeing to maintain peace at sea and trust each other and to conduct an inspection of the waters outside Beibu Gulf in preparation for a negotiated demarcation.

AMTI’s Truong Minh Vu and Nguyen Thanh Trung analyze the strategic context behind the trip, deeming it a “charm offensive” aimed at “reassure[ing] Vietnamese leaders that China’s intentions in the South China Sea are benign.” Meanwhile, Shawn Crispin argues that although “Xi’s visit was well-timed to restore China’s faltering position in Vietnam, tactically he . . . missed his mark.”

Singapore (and Taiwan). After leaving Vietnam, Mr. Xi made his way to Singapore for a packed day-and-a-half of diplomacy. The highlight of this second trip was undoubtedly Saturday’s summit between Mr. Xi and Taiwanese President Ma Ying jeou—the first ever meeting between the leaders of the rival nations. Although maritime disputes were deliberately left off the agenda, Mr. Xi’s pledge of “peaceful development across the straight” could have major ramifications for the South China Sea. Also on Saturday, during a lecture at Singapore National University, the PRC President reiterated his desire for a peaceful resolution of South China Sea disputes while also asserting that his government has a responsibility to protect China’s sovereignty and maritime rights. Other highlights of the seven-point speech include Mr. Xi’s claim that the South China Sea islands have been “China’s territory “since ancient times,” his pledge that FON would never be a problem, and his jab at interlocutors from outside the region (i.e. the United States).

Philippines. Mr. Xi dispatched PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the Philippines ahead of his own scheduled visit during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Forum next week. The trip came amid fallout between the two nations in the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s recent jurisdictional ruling in a maritime case the Philippines challenging China’s nine-dash claim under UNCLOS. Mr. Wang described the arbitration as “a knot that has impeded the improvement and development of Sino-Philippine relations” and added—as a not-so-veiled threat—that the PRC does not “want this knot to become tighter and tighter, so that it even becomes a dead knot.” The harsh language apparently had its desired effect, as the Philippines gave in to the PRC’s request that the case and other issues related to the South China Sea would remain off the agenda for the APEC summit.

In other news…

United States

Speaking at the Reagan National Defense Forum over the weekend, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned that Chinese land reclamation efforts and increased militarization in the South China Sea could “increase the risk of miscalculation or conflict among claimant states.” Mr. Carter also suggested that his concerns are widely shared: “The United States joins virtually everyone else in the region in being deeply concerned about the pace and scope of land reclamation.”

Reuters reports that, on Sunday night, two American B-52 bombers flew “in the area” of the PRC-held artificial islands in the Spratlys and continued their mission despite warnings from Chinese ground controllers. According to a Pentagon spokesman, however, the bombers did not come within the twelve-mile zone surrounding any of the reclaimed islands.

Additionally, debate continued about the significance of the USS Lassen’s freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Subi Reef, with only scant additional details emerging since last week. Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain called for more information about the FON patrol in an open letter to Secretary Carter. Senator McCain argued that it is imperative for the administration to “publicly clarify . . . the legal intent behind this operation and any future operations of a similar nature.”

Other South China Sea watchers have drawn several new inferences from the details currently available. The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda concluded that the U.S. FON patrol was not “an assertion of high seas freedom” but rather an innocent passage in compliance provisions of UNCLOS Article 19. However, he noted that even if the Lassen conducted an innocent passage transit, this still constituted an FONOP because it challenged the China’s demand that all ships seeking innocent passage provide prior notification, which is not required by UNCLOS. Over at The National Interest, Bonnie Glaser and Peter Dutton were the first to note that the geography of the Spratlys might explain why the Lassen seemingly conducted an innocent passage transit. Specifically, Sandy Cay—an unoccupied “rock” claimed by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan—could have its territorial sea “bumped out” by Subi Reef, as the low-tide-elevation feature falls within the twelve-mile radius of Sandy Cay. The Lowry Institute’s Euan Graham offered a useful reaction to Glaser and Dutton’s article, and our very own Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper advanced a similar theory based on the Philippine-held Thitu Island. Lastly, Mr. Panda predicted that Mischief Reef is the most likely target for the next U.S. FON patrol.


Despite rising tensions in the Asian Pacific, the PLA and the U.S. Navy conducted a joint naval training session in the Atlantic near Jacksonville, Florida. On a less conciliatory note, China deployed of an unknown number of fourth-gen fighter aircraft to Woody Island, which Franz-Stefan Gady explains could pose problems for future U.S. overflight operations.


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced over the weekend that he plans to raise issues related to the South China Sea at several upcoming international meetings, including the G-20 summit in Turkey, the APEC Forum in the Philippines, and the East Asia Summit in Malaysia. Mr. Abe hopes that participants will reaffirm the principle that “[t]he rule of law should be carried out to preserve the open, free and peaceful sea.”


As the rotating chain of APEC, the Philippines will host the regional organization’s leadership summit in Manilla next week, from November 17 to 19. Presidents Obama, Xi, and Putin will be among the world leaders in attendance.

Also, on Tuesday, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed that oral arguments for the merits portion of the Republic of the Philippines v. PRC case will be held November 24-30.


Before President Xi departed Vietnam on Friday, Japan’s defense ministry announced that Hanoi had invited Japanese warships to the strategic port at Cam Ranh Bay—“the jewel in the crown of Vietnam’s military” that is rarely visited by foreign ships. Especially given Vietnam’s warm overtures to Mr. Xi earlier in the day, the move will likely antagonize China. But it also shows Hanoi’s desire to engage with other Asian powers and the West.


Indonesia’s defense chief, Luhut Panjaitan, intimated that Jakarta might bring the PRC before an international tribunal if Beijing remains unwilling to resolve its nine-dash claim through dialogue. As Panjaitan put it, “We would like to see a solution on this in the near future through dialogue, or we could bring it to the International Criminal Court.” Despite the reference to the ICC, Reuters suggests that he meant another international tribunal, like the PCA. Although Indonesia is not a claimant to any of the land features in the South China Sea, it has long feared that the PRC’s claim to an exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea would challenge its own EEZ around the undisputed Natuna Islands. In response to Mr. Panjaitan’s comments, a PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman noted that China had no objection to Indonesia’s sovereignty over the Natunas, but he left unaddressed the real issue of the conflicting EEZs.

The Diplomat’s Shannon Teizzi offers some helpful background on Sino-Indonesian relations and explains why this rhetoric likely was “meant to signal frustration with China’s ambiguity, rather than a real indication that Indonesia wants to pursue the nine-dash line issue in a legal case.”

South Korea

China and South Korea will begin talks next month on maritime demarcation in the East China Sea, according to PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying. She further suggested that a “fair and proper solution” could serve as a model for others in the region facing similar problems. Shannon Tiezzi helpfully summarizes the particulars of the EEZ dispute at The Diplomat.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

At Opinio Juris, Andrew Gou lays out a forceful argument against the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s jurisdictional ruling in the Philippines v. PRC maritime case. Voice of America reports on an entertaining—and somewhat reassuring—radio exchange between the USS Lassen and a PLA ship. And a website run by China’s official People’s Daily has published rare pictures of island reclamation work, which were taken by a worker on Mischief Reef.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please feel free to email Zack Bluestone with breaking news or relevant documents.

Zack Bluestone is a third-year student at Harvard Law School, where he is Managing Editor of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy and Vice President of the National Security & Law Association. Zack has worked in all three branches of the federal government, including legal internships with the Office of the Chief Prosecutor of Military Commissions at the U.S. Department of Defense, the Office of the President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Federal Courts. Zack graduated summa cum laude from Georgetown University with B.S. in Foreign Service and earned his MBA from the University of Oxford.

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