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China’s airstrike rules of engagement reviewed

In late August 2018, a US Navy reconnaissance plane captured images of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) expanding militarization of the South China Sea (SCS). The images, circulated by CNN, offered visual confirmation of the PRC’s efforts in constructing artificial islands in the SCS and militarizing them with airfields.[1] The US patrol was repeatedly warned by the Chinese military with the transmitted message; ‘leave immediately and keep out to avoid any misunderstanding’.[2]

The images were the first shown by CNN since September 2015, when similar warnings were also conveyed, and it revealed an on-going and growing concern. The militarization of the SCS, within the so-called ‘nine-dash line’, is no secret, with an ‘island-building’ project implemented since at least 2014, but the wide consequences of such efforts is far less clear.[3]

The aspirations of the PRC in the SCS reflect a growing expansionism evident in Chinese policy, one that has been identified since 2009.[4] This expansionism also includes designs in the East China Sea (ECS) and has led to territorial disputes with regional neighbours such as Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, in addition to international tensions like the above incident reported by CNN.

While the incidents that have occurred since 2009 have taken the shape of colder forms of conflict – more sabre rattling than ‘hot’ action – China’s expansionist policy has raised concerns over future confrontation around her maritime borders.[5] Nowhere is this more evident than in the US media.[6] While the increasing modernization of the Chinese military, especially its naval and air forces, only serves to heighten and underpin such trepidations.[7]

This article addresses these fears. It is interested specifically with the possible civilian impact of the PRC’s expansion of its maritime borders. Furthermore, it seeks to answer whether recent changes in Chinese policy, and the increasing modernization of its military forces, may lead to future confrontation.

It will then turn towards asking, if such a confrontation was to be provoked, how may the PRC conduct itself in preserving the safety and security of civilian targets. It will do this by analysing the PRC’s current international activities, its track record on human rights issues, and the role of popular nationalism amongst the Chinese in government decision-making.

China and its maritime borders since independence

Historically, the PRC was inclined towards the urgent prioritization of the protection of its land borders. This translated strongly intto the military domain, with the ground forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) enjoying ascendency both in numbers and seniority, long after the establishment of the PLA Navy (PLAN) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) in 1949, and the Second Artillery in 1966.[8] Following the conclusion of the Korean War the PLA had 6.3 million troops, and retained a virtual hegemony over membership of the Central Military Commission (CMC) – the ‘military’s primary policy-making body’ – until 2004 when commanders from the PLAN and the Second Artillery were included for the first time.[9]

Such a focus on land-based conflict was largely reflected in official policy towards its maritime borders. As Xiaoming Zhang has identified, military leaders in the early years of the PLAAF viewed it primarily as a support organ to the PLA with a fundamental usefulness rooted in its ability to offer support for ground operations.[10]

To dismiss China’s interest in its wider maritime borders altogether, however, would be something of a misnomer, and the identification of oil in both the SCS and ECS in the 1960-70s played a motivating factor in maritime interest between neighbouring powers.[11]  As far back as 1951, the PRC made its first formal sovereignty claim in the SCS at the Treaty of San Francisco, while maritime rights were claimed in 1958, and again in 1982 and 1994, as a result of the ratification of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[12]

In January 1974 the PRC was involved with a skirmish with South Vietnamese naval forces which resulted in China taking formal control of the Paracel islands.[13] Small scale naval conflict with Vietnam remerged in 1988, with 74 Vietnamese deaths occurring as a result of the clash over the Chigua Reef that forms part of the Spratly islands group.[14] Ultimately, the PRC had historical disputes over maritime boundaries but was overwhelmingly focused on its land borders. With the increasing safety and security of the majority of its land borders, the contemporary focus has largely shifted towards the Chinese maritime zone of control.

Chinese policy since 2009-10

At the July 2009 Central Work Conference on foreign affairs, there was a stated emphasis on the need for a more active foreign policy for the PRC.[15] Alastair Iain Johnston identified 7 events which occurred from late 2009 and into 2010 which, at least in theory, demonstrated that China began to take a more assertive, proactive stance in global affairs.[16] Of these 7 events, which included diplomatic episodes such as the behaviour of PRC officials at the Copenhagen summit on climate change, Johnston identified a shift in policy which viewed the SCS as a ‘core interest’. The New York Times were among the numerous US media outlets to identify the shift in Chinese maritime interests.[17] While the thrust of Johnston’s article questioned how ‘new’ the more general examples of Chinese assertiveness were, he nonetheless concluded that the maritime border policy ‘is perhaps the only example where China’s diplomatic rhetoric and practice did shift fairly sharply in a more hard-line direction in this period.’[18]

Sporadic posturing occurred into 2011 in the SCS, with the detention of Chinese fishermen by both Vietnam and the Philippines met by combative language in the PRC’s state-run media.[19] Meanwhile, territorial disputes in the region continued without any concrete clarification of demarcation.[20] April 2012 saw the PRC deploy a number of patrol vessels to the Scarborough Shoal which resulted in a standoff with the Philippines, followed by the Philippines backing down and the ultimate withdrawal of their ships.[21]

Meanwhile 2012 saw the most notable example of escalating confrontation in the ECS as diplomatic tension arose around the islands of Senkaku/Diaoyu (the former being the Japanese name for the islands, the latter the Chinese).[22] Disputes over the islands essentially revolve around sovereignty claims which date back to before the 1895 Shimonoseki Peace Treaty, though in reality representatives of the PRC did little to enforce these claims until 1992.[23] The shift in Chinese policy evident in the SCS was likewise tested here in the ECS when the Japanese government bought the islands in September 2012 after suggestions that a Japanese private national was planning on doing something similar.[24] The response included weeks of protests in some of China’s major cities and the threat of a trade war against Japan. While questions of imminent war raised in publications such as The Financial Times were ultimately misguided, the incident provided further proof of China’s designs for her maritime borders and the likely reaction towards foreign powers interfering with such designs.[25]

The question of demarcation within the SCS reached such a point that a Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) tribunal ruling under UN law was announced in July 2016 in the Hague. The tribunal overwhelmingly ruled in favour of the Philippines’ claims in the area and invalidated China’s nine-dash line.[26] Despite possessing legal authority and the backing of global powers, the ruling may ultimately form more of an historical footnote than offer some form of closure on boundary issues considering the rejection of the tribunal ruling in Beijing.[27] This is compounded by the lack of faith shown in the PCA ruling in the Philippines, with the Duterte Administration preferring to adopt an appeasement policy towards China rather than relying on what has rather acrimoniously been referred to as a ‘piece of trash paper.’[28]

The CNN report of the increasing militarization of the SCS is hardly surprising given the context, and indeed tension had been building throughout 2018 with bellicose Chinese responses evident towards a number of US patrol operations, with the US not exactly seeking to assuage tension either.[29] In April, China conducted its largest ever naval parade, overseen by Xi Jinping.[30] While the parade itself forms part of a largely cold form of bravado common to contemporary relations in the SCS, it also indicates a wider issue that is symbiotic with the PRC’s bolder policy; the increasing capabilities of its military.

The ‘informationization’ & modernization of the PRC’s armed forces

A discernible shift in the policy of the PRC towards its maritime borders is increasing tension with its regional and global rivals. The reason this shift has become a cause for concern, certainly from the perspective of human security and, in turn, this article, is because of the rapid modernization of the PRC’s forces. China’s expansionist policies towards its maritime borders are not merely empty threats. They are designed with the knowledge that it is supported with a well-funded and modern military capable of acting on diplomatic pressure.

The 2015 white paper placed greater emphasis on the need for the armed forces to focus on ‘informationization’, or xinxihua. The concept of ‘informationization’ is anything related to information technologies. This can range from communications and command to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and so on.[31] This informationization coalesces with the wider imperative to move away from land-based operations and towards an emphasis on more relevant, modern forms of warfare. Naval and air power are central to this new initiative.

Since 2014 Xi Jinping has explicitly promulgated the role the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) should play in defending China’s maritime interests.[32] The expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has seen a significant modernization process which began in the 1990s and has begun to demonstrate its capabilities since 2014. The proportion of ‘older’ fighters – i.e. third-generation and earlier models such as the Chengdu J-7 – has been steadily shrinking, and since 2009 China has been developing two fifth-generation aircraft.[33] The first of these, the J-20 stealth fighter, was unveiled in September 2017, in the process becoming one of the very few operational fifth-generation fighters on the planet.[34]

The enactment of a number of patrols across the Pacific since 2014 indicate that the designs for the PLAAF were not merely rhetorical. The patrols increasingly utilise the H-6K, the PLAAF’s newest strategic bomber. The aircraft has an operational range of around 3,000 kilometres, with the ability to carry CJ-20 land-attack missiles with their own range of 1,500 km, producing a total outreach of around 4,500km from source.[35]

In 2017 the Pentagon estimated Chinese defence spending had exceeded $190billion, with a noticeable eye on the growing capabilities of the PLAAF signalled by its increased range of operations.[36] By October 2017 the estimated combined strength of the PLAAF and the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) was around 1,700 combat aircraft, effectively competing with Russia for second place in global air power behind the United States.[37] In addition to the more publicized J-20 stealth fighter and H-6K bomber, the Chinese fleet includes a large number of Shenyang J-11 jet fighters – which have been noted by aviation authorities in Delhi to be as good, if not superior, to their own Su-30 MKIs[38] – JH-7(A) fighter bombers, and J-10 multi-operational jets (of which the J-10C began combat duty in April 2018).[39]

In terms of numbers, funding and strength, the PLAAF has emerged as a truly global force after a number of failures to modernize during the Cold War, firstly after the Korean War, and second with the ascent of Deng Xiaoping to the head of the CMC in 1977 and his designs for air force modernization.[40] In addition it exceeds a number of its regional competitors, with pessimistic reports from India noting the disparity in strength between the respective neighbouring air forces.[41] Thus the expansionist policy of the PRC towards its maritime borders has coincided with a rapid increase in the military capabilities of China to strike within such borders in a time of escalated tension.

The situation as it stands

China now commands both a policy designed towards expanding its regional influence over its maritime borders and the strength to enforce these designs. Admiral Philip S. Davidson, the head of US Indo-Pacific command, plainly summed up the situation shortly before assuming his post; ‘China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States’.[42] Yet, for all this expansion, direct conflict has been largely absent from the region. However, a number of commentators have identified how direct conflict could occur in the region as China’s maritime borders begin to resemble other areas across the globe that have historically formed political hotspots. While full-scale war between China and the US is unlikely, the possibility of direct conflict between China and its regional competitors in the SCS or ECS remains a distinct possibility. In such a scenario the risk to civilian life, especially considering China’s military modernization, requires attention.

Without any clearly stated rules of engagement (RoE) evident in official Chinese military documents, and with a lack of precedent by way of past airstrikes, it is difficult to ascertain precisely how the PRC may act towards civilian targets in conflict.

Evaluation of negotiations for regional agreements such as the ASEAN-China Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text (SDNT) offers one route to understand the possible treatment of civilians in time of war. As part of proposals the SDNT considered including a section for the ‘humane treatment of persons in distress’ in addition to other rules related to ‘just treatment’ of persons in danger.[43]

An alternate route could be to look at the codes of conduct evident in the Chinese Military to assess its own rules towards warfare. Both of these alone however suffer from methodological problems.

The former agreement, the SDNT, is a draft text still in its negotiation phase. Perhaps more concerningly the PRC would overwhelmingly be the strongest signatory of any such agreement, which only heightens their ability to renege from the rules of a treaty without ramifications.  Meanwhile the latter codes of conduct largely follow similar lines towards civilian targets regardless of nation-state. A 2011 report for the International Review of the Red Cross highlighted how the PLA, along with military organizations in other countries such as the Philippines, Colombia and Uganda all contained rules for treatment of captives and action towards the public within their own codes.[44] Additionally, as noted by the report, adoption of codes does not automatically ‘guarantee compliance with IHL.’[45] Furthermore, national codes can often be too general, due to attempts to adhere to traditional military principles like patriotism and discipline, to be of much use in providing clear ethical principles.[46]

The above approaches rely more on the ability of text to enforce principles, rather than engaging with how such texts may be adhered to in the context of warfare. To consider how the expansionism of the PRC’s foreign policy could pose a threat to human security in the future, the current article takes a slightly different approach. It partially incorporates the textually based imperatives noted above, while also addressing other factors which could prove causal in questions of human security.

These factors fall into three categories. The first of these categories is the PRC’s current international commitments, and how its behaviour towards these predict its future actions. This expands a focus on its inherent codes of conduct towards its larger global commitments, and questions whether such commitments are likely to constrain the PRC’s actions in future warfare. The second category looks towards China’s past human rights record, and the warnings this may demonstrate for future decision making. Third and final is an evaluation of the domestic conditions of the PRC, focusing on how growing public nationalism may interact with the ability of China to press its own claims in the international arena.

The PRC’s international commitments

The PRC’s rising influence on the world stage has produced a transformation in its policy towards international agreements. In 1966 China was a member of only a single intergovernmental organization (IGO), and 58 international non-governmental organizations (INGOs). By the turn of the century, this had increased rapidly, with membership in over 50 IGOs and 1275 INGOs signalling a significant shift in policy since its relative isolationism before 1971.[47]

Despite being a member of influential IGOs such as the UN Security Council and the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), and member to international agreements such as UNCLOS,[48] China’s role in global affairs is curtailed by its ideological approach to such groupings. When it comes to conflict resolution there is a clear preference towards bi-lateral agreements rather than arbitration from an IGO, with a realist interpretation of international diplomacy very much at the forefront of PRC policy.[49] The inherent focus on national sovereignty in producing decisions on international agreements often results in less attention being given to humanitarian issues.

Critics of this over-emphasis on Chinese realpolitik such as Gary Klintworth point to the PRC’s increased participation in international arms control initiatives, having moved from a position of disinterest and opposition in the 1950-60s towards a ‘strong commitment’ towards arms control mechanisms by the 1990s.[50] However, since Klintworth’s publication in 2013 (derived from an earlier piece published in 2000) the PRC’s reluctance to ratify or even sign the UN Arms Trade Treaty (2014) indicates that this ‘strong commitment’ may have waned somewhat.[51] The PRC’s preference for preservation of sovereignty over international norms and it’s ‘ambiguous’ role related to arms transfers to Africa are among the reasons that a signature and ratification of the treaty look increasingly unlikely.[52]

The PRC should be commended for its active participation in treaties which challenge non-traditional security threats, especially those which involve non-state actors such as piracy and people trafficking.[53] However, more conventional, state-led international agreements which raise questions of national sovereignty provide more complex problems for the Chinese government to confront.

To delve into this complexity, it is worth turning towards the PRC’s stance towards military action in Syria, and its wider commitment to international humanitarian law (IHL). China has played an interesting role in the development of military action in Syria. While both Russia and a US, UK and French led coalition have separately engaged in airstrikes on the country, China remains the sole Security Council nation not to have done so. Ostensibly this could indicate a sense of morality and regard for civilian life omitted from the decision making of the other members. In reality, China’s decision making comes far less from humanitarian concerns.

This is clearly evident from the support offered from China to Russia in conducting airstrikes, which are judged to have led to a minimum of 7,113 civilian deaths in Syria.[54] The official reason for Russian support is based on a stated commitment to anti-terrorism. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying declared in late 2015 that, ‘as for Russia’s strikes against terrorist organizations in Syria, we have… expressed our support previously and noted that Russia carried out the fight against terrorist organizations in Syria at the invitation of the government of this country.’[55] The request from the Assad government for assistance from Moscow forms the basis for China’s argument that Russia has engaged in military action legitimately and legally.[56] More recently, a US, UK and French coalition has conducted airstrikes in an attempt to restrict Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons. This led to a Russian proposal to condemn such aggression. Again, China sided with Russia in the matter – the only other country to vote alongside them was Bolivia – and urged for a ‘peaceful dispute settlement’ rather than the use of force.[57] Though the PRC’s language towards the US, UK and French airstrikes was commendably conciliatory, its actions indicate a disregard for civilian life in its decision making considering the reports emerging about civilians casualties resulting from Russian airstrikes.

This inability to condemn Russian action in Syria brings into question China’s own commitment to IHL. IHL is designed to protect civilian targets in times of war and restrict means of warfare, including the use of chemical weapons which formed the basis of the joint US, UK and French intervention in Syria.[58] Understanding how China interacts with IHL in theory, and evaluating its own human rights record in practice, offers an insight into how China views its own commitment to such treaties and what this may mean in any potential future conflict.

The PRC and human rights

IHL itself relates to ‘all of the rules of international law that concern armed conflict’, including the Hague and Geneva Conventions.[59] China’s commitment to IHL dates back over a century, with the ratification in 1917 of the parts of the Hague Convention of 1907 respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (IV) and Restrictions to the Exercise of the Right of Capture (XI), following its earlier commitments the first Hague Convention of 1899.[60] It has since ratified the Geneva Conventions and additional protocols, as well as supporting other IHL initiatives related to biological and chemical weapons. Thus, ‘China is a party to most of the main treaties and is one of the states that has ratified the largest number of IHL instruments.’[61]

In addition to the PRC’s legal obligation to IHL it claimed in its 2014 White Paper on foreign aid to have contributed 1.5 billion-yuan (around $216 million US) worth of material and monetary assistance to emergency humanitarian aid causes in over 30 countries.[62] After talks between Chinese officials and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Wang Qishan, the Vice President of the PRC, identified the willingness to continue to support humanitarian work conducted by the Red Cross. Wang also encouraged further co-operation between the international Red Cross and the Red Cross Society of China, especially in its One Belt One Road initiative.[63]

Despite the apparent commitment to humanitarian causes by the PRC its genuine application of such ideals can be questioned when considering, firstly, its current human rights record and, secondly, how large a role a commitment to humanitarianism actually forms within China’s global policy.

As increasing international norms rose around the principals of human rights, China found itself after the late 1970s, and especially in the immediate aftermath of the events at Tiananmen in 1989, in a difficult international position. The PRC was largely conceived of as a conservative power working against the trend of the increasing attention being given towards human rights violations.[64] Ann Kent has since suggested that a more mutually beneficial relationship between the PRC and the UN arose surrounding co-operation in issues related to human rights.[65] However, as Xiaorong Li identified, much of the Kent’s work ‘bears painful witness to the limits and vulnerability of existing monitoring bodies within the UN system.’[66] Essentially, while the PRC has become more involved in international conversations surrounding human rights, there is still a glaring deficiency in its own application to such rules which brings its entire commitment into question.

Both Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International have continued to criticize the PRC’s current attitude to human rights violations, with gloomy future predictions enforced by the likely longevity of Xi Jinping’s leadership.[67] Amongst the accusations levelled towards the PRC by HRW and Amnesty were show trials for human rights defenders, imprisonment of pro-democracy advocates, the circumstances surrounding the death of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, persistent issues of oppression in Tibet, discrimination towards members of the LGBT community and suppression of religious beliefs.[68]

Meanwhile the EU failed for the first time to deliver a statement concerning a standing agenda item at the UN  Human Rights Council concerning issues requiring the council’s attention because Greece, who have substantial trade agreements with the PRC, refused to publicly criticize China.[69]

Greece’s reluctance in criticizing the PRC is especially pertinent when considering China’s human rights record. Its growing global influence has emerged hand in hand with growing economic dependence from nation-states in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. The increasing interdependence of economic ties creates another barrier to the condemnation of the PRC’s violations, with HRW in particular critical of even more ‘muted’ international condemnation of the deteriorating human right situation in China in 2017.

NGOs only form part of the criticism levelled towards China’s record related to human rights. The Economist is among the numerous publications to openly call out the PRC for its alleged forced detention of ‘at least several hundred thousand’ Muslims without trial.[70] For over a year the PRC had denounced such claims until, in mid-October 2018, it accepted that the people in question had been detained but defended such actions as a proactive form of counter-terrorism.

The lack of response from the PRC towards criticism of its human rights record from NGOs and media outlets merely forms part of its wider global policy. The international repercussions after the Tiananmen Square massacre demonstrated to China the limits of internal repression it could undertake before expecting a costly international backlash. The PRC has since adapted towards dealing with international norms by engaging with IGOs and international treaties. It has devoted large sums of money towards humanitarian efforts abroad, whilst maintaining conciliatorily rhetoric for peaceful solutions to international incidents. Such a show creates a narrative of an increasingly global Chinese state actively engaging in international agreements. The narrative in turn suits other global powers when seeking to brush over its internal discretions. But the internal aspects of Chinese human rights violations not only persist, but have again begun to deteriorate. The PRC will continue to commit such violations as long as it feels its international reputation is not irrefutably damaged and, with the growing economic dependence of a greater quantity of states, the chances of external condemnation only diminish further.

There is however one final issue to consider when questioning the likelihood of the PRC’s increasingly expansionist foreign policy towards its maritime borders translating into future civilian casualties. The final issue is the role of internal conditions in such a scenario.

China’s internal conditions: nationalism and objection

Debates around the role of Chinese nationalism are a hot topic. Differing views on the role widespread public nationalism in Chinese policy have been posited. Suisheng Zhao has argued that increasingly ardent nationalism in the public sphere has, since 2008, translated into a more aggressive global policy from the government, a government which has in turn become less likely to attempt to curb such emotional nationalist rhetoric.[71] Florian Schneider offered an alternate line of thought when he asserted that Chinese nationalism has been transformed and accelerated by narratives which have emerged in the digital age.[72] To Schneider, nationalistic expression in contemporary China is the result of elite actors vigorously constructing nationalistic rhetoric through the median of digital communication.

Zhao and Schneider see Chinese nationalism differently, the former more inclined to see an organic nationalism – arising in no small part from past oppression and humiliation at the hands of imperialist powers – which has in some ways forced the hand of policy making in the PRC. The latter, meanwhile, conceptualizes an actively produced nationalism amongst the masses derived from a concerted effort from the political elite which can, in turn, use this nationalism to pursue global political goals. What both agree on is the contemporary existence across large swathes of China of an active nationalism interested in seeing the PRC extend its global power.

The debates surrounding the construction of this nationalism cloud the wider truth that is occurring in contemporary China; that militaristic nationalism exists, and it is growing. While the reality of its construction is more than likely derived from parts of both arguments, the contemporary situation sees a Chinese government with stated goals across its maritime borders with a public actively backing its designs to expand its influence. This domestic support is a factor in decision making as expansionist pursuits can be justified as an expression of the will of the people. While perhaps not allowing the state a free-hand, it nonetheless means that aggressive policies can be pursued without fear of internal backlash. Thus, there is little to stop China domestically from realizing its expansionist aims.

The support for Chinese claims of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands offered a prime example of this nationalistic support in action. During the furore surrounding the attempts at the Japanese purchase, Weibo, the popular Chinese social media site acted as a public space for the overwhelming defence of Chinese sovereignty and policy over the islands.[73] Meanwhile, t-shirts abounded which displayed both the slogan ‘Japan get out of Diaoyu islands’ and maps of China which explicitly highlighted the islands as part of Chinese territory.[74] Thus, any assertive ECS policy in the situation was unlikely to be hampered by internal conditions.

The announcement of plans for airstrikes in Syria prompted a number of protests in the UK, around 4,000 strong outside Downing Street and included smaller rallies at other cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Swansea.[75] While the tangible results of such protests can be called into question, they still offer a clear mechanism to dispute foreign policy. In the PRC the support for an expansionist foreign policy only expands the potential of China’s designs over its maritime borders, and the internal suppression of dissidence by the government largely prevents public opinion from acting as a preventative measure.

The possibility of conflict in the SCS or ECS is unlikely to be hampered by public opinion. It is far more likely that the vast majority of the public would support such endeavours to project China’s global power. The question that arises from this is whether the public would be sympathetic towards any civilian casualties that may occur as a result of conflict. With such strong support for the projection of Chinese power, and the propensity for the Chinese government to crack-down on individuals speaking out against the state, the possibility of internal public condemnation remains low.

Conclusions

Commentary surrounding international politics increasingly looks towards China’s maritime borders as a possible source of conflict. Mike Pence, the US Vice President, has recently reiterated that the Indo-Pacific region is no place for ‘empire and aggression.’[76] While not going so far as to mention China specifically, the language employed by Pence is emblematic of the bellicose rhetoric currently used by state officials towards China’s maritime borders.

While nations with competing interests in the SCS and ECS continue to debate, assert and occasionally threaten their own viewpoints the more alarming question of the casualties that may be caught up in such conflict remains largely overlooked. The PLAAF has the capacity to strike at a number of targets on the edge of its maritime borders. With its South China Sea possessions, which includes the airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef, the PRC’s projected air range extends towards Vietnam and a number of nations across Southeast Asia and the Malay peninsula, as well as towards Borneo and virtually all of the Philippines.[77]

This article aimed to address how likely conflict is in the region. China’s increasingly expansionist policy towards its maritime borders, and the increasing modernization of its forces, especially the PLAAF, indicate that the possibility of conflict arising is not implausible. While the potential for this conflict to escalate to war with the US is unlikely, the potential for conflict arise with the PRC’s regional neighbours is far more likely.

In such a situation, China’s international commitments are unlikely to offer much restraint on its conduct towards civilian targets. Commitment to national sovereignty dwarfs any pretensions towards norm building in Chinese foreign policy, and when the two collide the former will always take precedent over the latter. The PRC’s commitment to internationally recognized peaceful norms form a wider imperative to project an image of a peaceful nation. Its support for Russian airstrikes in Syria underscore how the commitment to norms only remains as long as they benefit China’s wider policies.

In actively engaging in strikes which may result in civilian casualties this paper turned towards China’s internal human rights record. Again, the attempt at the projection of a peaceful nation overrode a genuine attempt to adhere to international ideas surrounding human rights. Not only did HRW and Amnesty identify a string of human rights violations in the past year, they actively stated that China’s own human rights commitment was deteriorating. Translated into the PRC’s foreign aims, there is no reason to suggest that China would not again violate international norms as long as it felt its international image were not overly compromised. The increasing economic dependence of a number of nations indicates that direct condemnation of China’s action may not be wholly forthcoming.

Finally, the rise in nationalism amongst large swathes of the Chinese public gives a further indication that there is little to oppose Chinese expansionism. While it is impossible to say that there would not be internal condemnation should civilian targets be harmed in conflict, the overriding desire to see China project its global power and the willingness of the government to crack-down on internal dissent indicate that internal condemnation is unlikely.

The situation therefore is of growing concern from a perspective of human security. The role that international institutions, such as the UN, can play in the escalation of conflict appears to be increasingly bleak as China continues to grow into an economic superpower. If the ability of international organizations to help mediate interests within China’s maritime borders diminishes civilian security may be left in the hands of a nation with a track record of human rights violations. In such a scenario, the prospect of civilian security looks increasingly unstable.


[1] Brad Lendon, Ivan Watson, and Ben Westcott, ‘“Leave Immediately”: US Navy Plane Warned over South China Sea’, CNN, 24 August 2018 <https://edition.cnn.com/2018/08/10/politics/south-china-sea-flyover-intl/index.html>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Dobbins et al., ‘Conflict with China Revisited’, RAND, (2017), p. 4.

[4] Benjamin Schreer, ‘Towards Contested ‘Spheres of Influence’ in the Western Pacific: Rising China, Classical Geopolitics, and Asia-Pacific Stability’, Geopolitics (2017), pp. 1-20.

[5] Sheldon W. Simon, ‘Conflict and Diplomacy in the South China Sea’, Asian Survey, 52, 6 (2012), pp. 995-1018.

[6] Alastair Iain Johnston, ‘How New and Assertive Is China’s New Assertiveness?’, International Security, 37, 4 (2013), p. 7.

[7] Robert D. Kaplan, ‘The South China Sea Is the Future of Conflict’, Foreign Policy (2011), pp. 76-85.

[8] ‘China’s Changing Military’, Strategic Comments, 11, 6 (2005), pp. 1-2.

[9] Ibid., p. 1.

[10] Xiaoming Zhang, Red wings over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union, and the Air War in Korea (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003), p. 38.

[11] Chong-Pin Lin, ‘Behind Rising East Asian Maritime Tensions with China: Struggle without Breaking’, Asian Survey, 55, 3 (2015), p. 478.

[12] Michael Yahuda, ‘China’s New Assertiveness in the South China Sea’, Journal of Contemporary China, 22, 81 (2013), p. 450.

[13] M. Taylor Fravel, ‘China’s Strategy in the South China Sea’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, 33, 3 (2011), pp. 293, 297-298.

[14] ibid. pp. 298-299.

[15] Michael Yahuda, China’s New Assertiveness, p. 447.

[16] Alastair Iain Johnston, How New, pp. 7-48.

[17] Edward Wong, ‘Chinese Military Seeks to Extend its Naval Power’, New York Times, 23 April 2018. <https://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/24/world/asia/24navy.html>.

[18] Alastair Iain Johnston, How New, p. 19. The specific quote relates to the South China Sea, before going on to identify how its diplomatic response to the Japanese purchase of Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea would also meet the criteria of ‘a new assertiveness in its policy toward maritime disputes.’

[19] Michael Yahuda, China’s New Assertiveness, pp. 452-453.

[20] Nguyen-Dang Thang and Nguyen Hong Thao, ‘China’s Nine Dotted Lines in the South China Sea: The 2011 Exchange of Diplomatic Notes Between the Philippines and China’, Ocean Development & International Law, 43, 1 (2012), pp. 35-56.

[21] Aaron L. Friedberg, ‘The Sources of Chinese Conduct: Explaining Beijing’s Assertiveness’, The Washington Quarterly, 37, 4 (2014), p. 135.

[22] Alessio Patalano, ‘Seapower and Sino-Japanese Relations in the East China Sea’, Asian Affairs, 45, 1 (2014), p. 34.

[23] ibid., pp. 38-39.

[24] Ibid., p. 39.

[25] Gideon Rachman, ‘The Shadow of 1914 Falls over the Pacific’, The Financial Times, 4 February 2013 <https://www.ft.com/content/e29e200a-6ebb-11e2-9ded-00144feab49a>.

[26] Wei Zongyou, ‘China’s Maritime Trap’, The Washington Quarterly, 40, 1 (2017), pp. 167-184.

[27] Tom Phillips, ‘Beijing Rejects Tribunal’s Ruling in South China Sea Case’, The Guardian, 12 July 2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/12/philippines-wins-south-china-sea-case-against-china>.

[28] Renato Cruz De Castro, ‘The 12 July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) Award: The Philippines’ Lawfare versus China’s Realpolitik in the South China Sea Dispute’, International Journal of China Studies, 8, 3 (2017), pp. 347-372.

[29] Brad Lendon, Ivan Watson, and Ben Westcott, Leave Immediately.

[30] ‘China’s Xi Presides over Large-Scale Naval Display in South China Sea’, Reuters, 12 April 2018 <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-military-xi/chinas-xi-presides-over-large-scale-naval-display-in-south-china-sea-idUSKBN1HJ27M>.

[31] Richard A. Bitzinger, ‘China’s love affair with ‘informatized warfare’’, Asia Times, 27 February 2018 <http://www.atimes.com/chinas-love-affair-informatized-warfare/>.

[32] Mark R. Cozad and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, People’s Liberation Army Air Force Operations over Water: Maintaining Relevance in China’s Changing Security Environment (Santa Monica: RAND, 2017), p. vi.

[33] Ian E. Rinehart, The Chinese Military: Overview and Issues for Congress (Congressional Research Service, 2016).

[34] Mike Yeo, ‘China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet is in service’, Defense News, 28th September 2017. <https://www.defensenews.com/global/2017/09/28/chinas-j-20-stealth-fighter-jet-is-in-service/>.

[35] Mark R. Cozad and Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, People’s Liberation, pp. 2-3, 23.

[36] Reuters, ‘China is ‘rapidly’ expanding bomber training, probably for US strikes – Pentagon’, 17th August 2018. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/17/pentagon-claims-china-military-likely-training-strikes-us-targets>.

[37] Sebastien Roblin, ‘China’s Air Force: 1,700 Combat Aircraft Ready for War’, The National Interest, 28th October 2017. <https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/chinas-air-force-1700-combat-aircraft-ready-war-22940>.

[38] B. K. Pandey, ‘Military – Combat Fleets: IAF vs PLAAF’, SP’s Aviation (New Delhi, 2017).

[39] Xinhua, ‘China’s fighter jet J-10C begins combat duty’, 16th April 2018. <http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-04/16/c_137115186.htm>.

[40] John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, ‘China’s Search for a Modern Air Force’, International Security, 24, 1 (1999), pp. 64-94.

[41] B. Menon, ‘Operations: Combat Preparedness of the IAF’, SP’s Aviation (New Delhi, 2016).

[42] Hannah Beech, ‘China’s Sea Control Is a Done Deal, “Short of War With the U.S.”’, New York Times, 20 September 2018 <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/asia/south-china-sea-navy.html>.

[43] Carl Thayer, ‘A Closer Look at the ASEAN-China Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct’, The Diplomat, 3 August 2018 <https://thediplomat.com/2018/08/a-closer-look-at-the-asean-china-single-draft-south-china-sea-code-of-conduct/>.

[44] ‘A collection of codes of conduct issued by armed groups’, International Review of the Red Cross, 93, 882 (2011), pp. 483-501.

[45] ibid., p. 485.

[46] Codes of Conduct in Defence Ministries and Armed Forces (London: Transparency International UK, 2011), p. 16.

[47] Ann Kent, ‘China’s participation in international organisations’, in, Yongjin Zhang and Greg Austin (eds.), Power and Responsibility in Chinese Foreign Policy, Book, Whole (Acton, A.C.T: ANU E Press, 2013), pp. 132-133.

[48] Robert Beckman, ‘The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Maritime Disputes in the South China Sea’, American Journal of International Law, 107, 1 (2013), pp. 142-63.

[49] Ibid., 134.

[50] Gary Klintworth, ‘China and arms control: a learning process’, in, Yongjin Zhang and Greg Austin (eds.), Power and Responsibility, pp. 219-244.

[51] Anna Stavrianakis, ‘Legitimising liberal militarism: politics, law and war in the Arms Trade Treaty’, Third World Quarterly, 37, 5 (2016), pp. 841-842, 845.

[52] Bernardo Mariani and Elizabeth Kirkham, ‘China, Africa and the Arms Trade Treaty’, in, Chris Alden, Abiodun Alao, Zhang Chun and Laura Barber (eds.), China and Africa: Building Peace and Security on the Continent (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), p. 333.

[53] Michael Yahuda, China’s New Assertiveness, p. 449.

[54] Stats come from Airwars’ monitoring of Russian airstrikes in Syria, and include data compiled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights <https://airwars.org/russian-civcas/>.

[55] ‘China Supports Russia’s Actions in Syria — Foreign Ministry’, TASS, 4 December 2015 <http://tass.ru/en/world/841546>.

[56] Marcin Kaczmarski, ‘China on Russia’s intervention in Syria’, OSW, 19 January 2016. < https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2016-01-19/china-russias-intervention-syria>.

[57] ‘Following Air Strikes against Suspected Chemical Weapons Sites in Syria, Security Council Rejects Proposal to Condemn Aggression’, UN Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, 14 April 2018 < https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13296.doc.htm>.

[58] Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Ben Hubbard, ‘U.S., Britain and France Strike Syria Over Suspected Chemical Weapons Attack’, New York Times, 13 April 2018 <https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/13/world/middleeast/trump-strikes-syria-attack.html>.

[59] Amanda Alexander, ‘A Short History of International Humanitarian Law ‘, The European Journal of International Law, 26, 1 (2015), p. 111.

[60] ‘China’, ICRC Treaties, State Parties and Commentaries <https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/applic/ihl/ihl.nsf/vwTreatiesByCountrySelected.xsp?xp_countrySelected=CN>.

[61] Wang Wenjuan, The PLA and International Humanitarian Law: Achievements and Challenges, trans. by Kelly Chen (Stockholm: Institute for Security and Development Policy, 2013), p. 8.

[62] ‘China’s Foreign Aid’, Xinhua, 10 July 2014 <https://reliefweb.int/report/china/chinas-foreign-aid>.

[63] ‘China: ICRC president urges humanitarian focus for China’s global governance endeavour’, ICRC, 1 June 2018 <https://www.icrc.org/en/document/china-peter-maurer-visit-2018>.

[64] Andrew J Nathan, ‘Human Rights in Chinese Foreign Policy’, The China Quarterly, 139 (1994), pp. 622-623.

[65] Ann Kent, China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p. 243.

[66] Xiaorong Li, ‘China, the United Nations, and Human Rights: The Limits of Compliance by Ann Kent’, The China Journal, 44 (2000), pp. 206-208.’

[67] ‘China: Events of 2017’, Human Rights Watch <https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2018/country-chapters/china-and-tibet>.

[68] ‘China 2017/2018’, Amnesty International <https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/china/report-china/>.

[69] ‘China: Events of 2017’, HRW.

[70] ‘Cat leaves bag’, The Economist, 20 October 2018, p. 60.

[71] Suisheng Zhao, ‘Foreign Policy Implications of Chinese Nationalism Revisited: The Strident Turn’, Journal of Contemporary China, 22, 82 (2013), pp. 535–553.

[72] Florian Schneider, China’s Digital Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 25-56.

[73] Miao Feng and Elaine J. Yuan, ‘Public Opinion on Weibo: The Case of the Diaoyu Islands Dispute’, in, Thomas A. Hollihan (ed.), The Dispute Over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands: How Media Narratives Shape Public Opinion and Challenge the Global Order (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pp. 119-140.

[74] Justin McCurry, ‘Tokyo’s rightwing governor plans to buy disputed Senkaku Islands’, The Guardian, 19 April 2012 <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/19/tokyo-governor-senkaku-islands-china>.

[75] Joel Gunter, ‘Thousands attend protests against UK airstrikes on Syria’, The Guardian, 28 November 2015 <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/nov/28/thousands-attend-protests-against-uk-airstrikes-on-syria>.

[76] John Geddie, ‘Pence says ’empire and aggression’ have no place in Indo-Pacific’, Reuters, 15 November 2018 <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-asean-summit-pence-idUSKCN1NK084>.

[77] ‘Airpower in the South China Sea’, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 29 July 2015 <https://amti.csis.org/airstrips-scs/>.