Last week the East-West Center published research that Patrick McNulty and I conducted for the National Defense University between 2012 and 2014. The article entitled “Claimant Tactics in the South China Sea: By the Numbers” was an effort to collect empirical data which characterized claimant actions in defense of, or to advance territorial claims. You can see the article here at this link. To summarize, we conducted internet searches of claimant activity between 1995 and 2013. We placed the different actions that these countries undertook into nine categories (Military, Paramilitary, Economic, Legal, Informational, Administrative and Diplomatic, (Diplomatic actions got divided into three sub-categories, Negotiation actions, Coalition Diplomacy, and Dispute Management)). For a full description of these categories and the analysis of these actions please see the above link and previously published work linked here.
For this blog I want to bring the reader’s attention to something that I found equally interesting: foreign audience reactions to this research. Before I do that I do have to give you a very quick summary of what our research found. First, our data shows that the Chinese were the most extensive users of these actions. The Chinese simply overwhelmed their competitors with the sheer volume of actions they took to protect their claims. Second, the Chinese also were the greatest users of military and paramilitary actions. Their actions (148) comprised 55% of all military/paramilitary actions going back to 1995. The second highest user of military and paramilitary actions (60) was the Philippines. Vietnam had a low rate of use of military and paramilitary actions (16) given its extensive maritime territorial dispute with China and the other ASEAN states and Brunei and Malaysia had almost negligible use of military and paramilitary actions to support their claims. Taiwan had a surprisingly large number of military and paramilitary actions (22 uses of military/paramilitary actions outnumbered Vietnam’s actions) given its ambiguous international status. The only category in which China was outnumbered in use by one of its rivals was in the legal sphere. The Philippines utilized legal actions far more than the Chinese have tended to do dating back to 1995.
When I presented this research to the Chinese I received some rather surprising responses. When I briefed members of the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University, our Chinese counterparts, their initial reaction to my bar graphs depicting what I thought was a large number of Chinese actions was: “So few? I would have thought that graph would have depicted many more actions.” One of the other PLA officers commented, “but of course this is unclassified data. It doesn’t reveal everything that is being done. Right?” And of course the Chinese were right about that. Which confirmed that all the data that we had collected was an undercount. A robust sample of a larger universe of actions, but an undercount nonetheless. Another interesting response came when I presented the research to the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). To Wu Shicun and his staff, I flashed on the screen a map of the South China Sea and the bullet, “China’s claim: 797,000 square miles”. This number easily dwarfed the claims of all of China’s rivals. The Chinese reaction to the graph however, was without hesitation: “This claim is too small. The actual number is closer to 3,000,000.” After a moment of confusion and discussion we all discovered that there was indeed no discrepancy. Our hosts were using square kilometers while we had calculated in square miles. My graphic was correct. The interesting thing is that the Chinese did not hesitate to claim what they thought was theirs. And if their guests were giving a presentation which seemed to be suggesting that China’s claims were grossly excessive in comparison with China’s neighbors–so be it. In the end, the Chinese seemed to have liked the empirical approach to the study of maritime territorial disputes. In subsequent visits to China and to this particular institute, my former colleagues at the National War College have reported that the Chinese have lifted the numbers right off of my graphs and have presented them to visiting delegations. “Are you familiar with Dr. Yung’s work”, Dr. Bud Cole of the War College, asked the NISCSS briefer. “Oh, you don’t understand” came the reply “This is Dr. Yung’s work.”
Another very interesting response to this work came from Vietnamese audiences. One of the very first times I briefed this research in public was at the East-West Center offices in Washington. After presenting this information, a Vietnamese woman was one of the first to raise her hand to ask a question. Or rather to make a lengthy comment and then ask a question. She noted my comment about the low number of Vietnamese military and paramilitary actions that the current government of Vietnam has undertaken in support of their claims. She pointed out that had the previous government of Vietnam been in power, the free Vietnamese government, she assured me that the Vietnamese would have displayed a much more vigorous defense of their claims. They were not friends with the Chinese Communists like the regime in Hanoi is now. When I had the opportunity to give the presentation to Vietnamese Embassy representatives, I again noted the low number of Vietnamese military and paramilitary actions in support of their claims. Several Vietnamese interlocutors wryly noted, “well of course, Vietnam is a peace loving nation. The numbers should speak for themselves, right?” Later on some of my Vietnamese interlocutors admitted that this research only captures public data, data confirmed by government statements, and observed by the press. Surely there is a lot more action going on which is not being picked up by the public.
Some of the reactions of the other remaining claimants is noteworthy as well. A Malaysian scholar approached me at a CSIS event, after I’d presented it and said that the low number of Malaysian actions clearly reflects his government’s policy. “We don’t see a need to be in the face of the Chinese” he pointed out. “We prefer a low key approach.” A Singaporean diplomat with whom I occasionally had lunch noted that the graphs depicting actions at Diplomatic venues like the ADMM+ and the DoC/CoC negotiations really did capture the diplomatic maneuvering taking place in those venues. A Taiwan delegation coming to town for a conference had gotten wind that I had done this research and asked that they get a brief on it. The head of the delegation told me that he was pleased that my research showed that Taiwan was not complacent when it came to defending its maritime territorial claims, regardless of its ambiguous international status. “Give me a call when you are in Taipei”, he offered, “I might even be able to provide more examples of Taiwan’s actions in support of its claims.”
Reactions to this research from Asian countries with no claims in the South China Sea were also noteworthy. One Japanese scholar approached me after the presentation at the East-West Center and said:” Would you happen to have collected similar data for Japan and China interactions in the East China Sea?” We had not, I told him. “Pity. Such an analysis would be very revealing of what is going on in the push and pull between us and the Chinese over the Senkaku Islands.”
The most common reaction however to the presentation, across most of Asian audiences that I gave this presentation to, was: “This empirical approach is very useful. However it doesn’t do what most of us are asked to do by our institutions! It doesn’t address ’cause and effect’ and it doesn’t point fingers and assign blame!” Chinese audiences for example have asked me to add one more actor in the data base–the United States. “What was the United States military doing on such and such a day when a clash happened between the Philippines and China?” one Chinese scholar asked me. My response to his question was that I was not inclined to display data on what actions the U.S. took on a specific day and relate them to events in the South China Sea. Why? “Because the U.S. military is always doing something, everyday. The temptation will be for countries like China to blame a spat that the PLA had with the Philippines Navy on the deployment of a U.S. carrier battle group departing San Diego coincidentally on that same day!” I retorted. Another Asian scholar fretted that my data was too “value neutral”. “This doesn’t tell us which country has legitimate claims and which country has illegal claims. All it tells us is what countries are doing to each other! What if one of our rivals has been acting in a predatory fashion for decades? If we react with force, that is another data point in your data base which you are free to interpret as a military action that is morally equivalent to some aggressive act our rival may have undertaken last month! Don’t we have a right to protect our territorial integrity?” “Yes, you do”, I responded, “but this data base won’t necessarily assign blame and indicate who is right and who is wrong. That is for future research to reveal.” My Asian interlocutor looked very dissatisfied and I could see that he was in contemplation over what to think about this research that I had presented to him.
The research effort to empirically show what actions these countries are undertaking in the South China Sea is a first step to painting a picture of what is actually going on in the region. That can serve as a strategic communications tool that the countries can use to have discussions about how to address the maritime territorial conflicts there. The NDU data base is not a perfect instrument of statecraft, as disappointed Asian audience reactions should illustrate, but it is a start to a conversation. And that is something!