The Scholar as Portent of Chinese Actions in the South China Sea

25 July 2016/ By Ryan D. Martinson/ Center for International Maritime Security

Chinese leaders, like leaders elsewhere, rely on the advice of outside experts—academics and other professional scholars—to help them cope with the myriad challenges of international politics. Statesmen and scholars, however, come from very different worlds. When leaders craft foreign policy, they place a premium on secrecy. Scholars, by contrast, have powerful motives to share their views and tout their influence.

For those studying an opaque state like the People’s Republic of China (PRC), it is therefore very tempting to regard the “influential” Chinese scholar, who writes and speaks without reserve, as a proxy for the shy statesman he serves. The lure of this approach is especially strong in the case of the South China Sea, where authoritative—and reliable—statements of PRC intentions are particularly scarce. In the aftermath of the recent ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (Case No. 2013-19), the writings of Chinese scholars will no doubt be closely scrutinized for insights about the PRC’s likely response to this desolating blow to its South China Sea claims.

But is this a wise approach?

We must immediately distinguish the advisor from the propagandist. Both have direct connections with the state. Indeed, an individual scholar may serve both functions. As a propagandist, the scholar justifies past and current policy; as an advisor, she seeks to shape future policy. Studying the work of the propagandist has merits: we learn what the PRC wants domestic and international audiences to believe. The statements of the advisor, however, are potentially much more rewarding, for they may suggest future actions. Knowing what a state may do allows one to engage in proactive diplomacy and prepare countermeasures.

Given the legal and strategic complexities of the issues at stake, Chinese scholars have an important advisory role to play in South China Sea policy. However, among the dozens (hundreds?) of Chinese scholars researching the law and politics of the South China Sea, the vast majority will never speak to or have their work read by men and women in positions of real authority. Thus, if one’s aim is to conjecture about the direction of PRC policy, the works of only a tiny number of Chinese scholars—i.e., those with demonstrable influence—are worth considering.

Researchers at the Hainan Center for South China Sea Policy and Law (海南省南海政策与法律研究中心) fall into this category. Examining this institute—and the work of one scholar in particular—allows us to explore what can and cannot be learned from the writings of “influential” Chinese scholars.

Established in December 2011, the Center is based at the Hainan University School of Law. Its mission is to “research the law of the South China Sea and serve national strategy.” It employs 17 full-time and 15 part-time researchers, all studying issues directly and indirectly related to China’s position in the South China Sea.

The Center is very closely connected to the Chinese government. Indeed, the chair of its academic committee is Gao Zhiguo, who directs a major research unit located within the State Oceanic Administration (SOA). Gao lectures widely on maritime issues, his audiences ranging from small communities of specialists to the most senior members of the Chinese party-state. In sum, the Center is a large, well-connected institute that exists to find answers to the most important questions facing Chinese policy in the South China Sea.

Like all academic institutions, the Center seeks to publicize the achievements of its resident experts. To this end, it posts detailed data about the research grants it  receives. As of October 2015, the Center had been awarded dozens of grants totaling millions of RMB from entities such as the National Planning Office of Philosophy and Social Science (NPOPSS), the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice, and the Hainan provincial government.

Such information is valuable in and of itself. Project names and grant amounts suggest which topics are important to the Chinese government. Since 2012, for example, Center researcher Wang Chongmin  received half a million RMB (~$75,000) from SOA in order to do preliminary work on a “maritime basic law,” a comprehensive statement of China’s maritime claims and the roles and responsibilities of state entities charged with defending them. In 2015, Center researcher Chen Yangle was awarded 200,000 RMB (~$30,000) from NPOPSS to examine how China might promote tourism to the disputed Spratly Islands without undermining the “Maritime Silk Road” initiative, a policy aimed at cultivating regional good will. Since 2012, Chen Qiuyun  received 50,000 RMB (~$7,500) from the Ministry of Justice to study how sailing directions (更路簿) supposedly handed down by generations of Chinese fishermen might bolster the legitimacy of PRC claims.

Center researcher Zou Ligang is a special case. From 2010-2012, NPOPSS awarded Zou a total of 120,000 RMB (~$18,000) to complete a project entitled “Research on Legal Issues Associated with the South China Sea Problem and a Program to Resolve It.” This bland title might be easily overlooked, were it not for the fact that NPOPSS appraised Zou’s work as “outstanding”—an honor the Center was eager to promote. Indeed, a closer examination of this project reveals a direct connection between Zou and the highest levels of the Chinese government.

As luck would have it, the Hainan Society of Social Sciences published a lengthy synopsis of Zou’s project. His overall objective was to probe China’s existing South China Sea policy and suggest improvements. One particular focus was the “nine-dashed line,” the undefined cartographical monstrosity that continues to confuse and dismay the coastal states of Southeast Asia. Zou proceeds from the assumption China has “jurisdiction” over all of the two million square kilometers of maritime space within the nine-dashed line. The purpose of his research was to create a legal basis for China to “control” (管控) these waters, and to do so without seriously harming regional stability. Read more..

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