The South China Sea dispute presents several relatively new phenomena in the modern study of relations among nations. In this seven-country disagreement, we can see how a country deliberately built islands in the sea so that it has justification for claiming 12 nautical miles from the outermost point of its artificial land and 200 nautical miles of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) beyond. It does not stop there; the situation whereby a country uses lasers and water cannons to uphold its claims in the sea is also an arguably new thing to witness.
China is one of the leading actors in the functioning of lasers and water cannons as claim-upholding tools in the South China Sea. In 2023, the country gives some examples of both military tool usage for the sake of its interest in the South China Sea. In February, a Chinese Coast Guard vessel aimed a “military-grade” green laser light twice at the Philippines Coast Guard in disputed waters, called the Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and the Ren’ai Reef in China. The former illegally made a “dangerous maneuver” by coming within 150 yards of the rear right of the latter’s boat. The movement, as China’s officials argued, was made to respond to the Philippines’ disobedience and violation of China’s instructions and sovereignty.
Six months later, China’s Coast Guard was reported to have used water cannon against a Philippine boat in the South China Sea. Video from the Philippines showed a large Chinese-flagged ship spraying a much smaller Philippine boat that was attempting to deliver supplies to a garrison of Philippine marines on Second Thomas Shoal, a South China Sea feature in Manila’s EEZ that China calls Renai Reef and also claims as its sovereign territory. Again, China’s government officials call the act justifiable since the victim “illegally” intruded on China’s territorial part.
In carrying out these controversial actions, China received a lot of expressions of disapproval and even criticism. Big powers like the United States did not miss giving a response. For example, by commenting on China’s actions with the label “provocative and unsafe”. But has receiving a lot of criticism from countries and international organizations made China stop taking actions that harm other countries in the South China Sea? Certainly not.
China’s action of disturbing ships passing its Nine Dash Line claim is not new. Previously, China had done this several times. Even though it has also received criticism in the past, China still has the guts to take such provocative actions today. So, is not lasering and spraying his opponents in the South China Sea an effective diplomatic strategy?
Acting with the goal of influencing events in the international system is known as diplomacy. With this understanding, all efforts that China is making so that the world wants to recognize its sovereignty in the South China Sea are diplomatic efforts that it is making.
Diplomacy does not only take place in the form of a formal meeting between two country representatives who appear in suits in a lavishly decorated and cool room. Diplomacy can happen anywhere as long as action is taken to achieve a state interest. In fact, war can be regarded as an instrument of diplomacy since it serves state’s national interests, as argued by war strategist Carl von Clausewitz.
China’s strategy of using lasers and water cannons as its diplomatic tools is very effective because this method minimizes the involvement of other countries in interfering. China is very anti-internationalizing the South China Sea conflict. If China uses more powerful weapons, such as rifles or bombs, this will lead to the loss of human life, thus causing a big incident. If it makes this issue a viral scene and becomes the spotlight of the whole world, it must expend more energy to deal with other actors who are looking for ways to get into the vortex of the maritime conflict. Furthermore, because of these killings, the United States could intervene on the grounds of “protecting human rights”.
Previously, there have been many murder cases that occurred in the South China Sea. In 2013, the Philippine Coast Guard shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in the sea. In 2020, the Malaysian Coast Guard was also involved in the killing of Vietnamese fishermen. Yet, this issue is not the reason for the full entry of the United States into the South China Sea conflict because the killings were committed by its close friends in Southeast Asia (Philippines and Malaysia). It would be a different story if China did the killing. The United States would have every reason to be directly involved because it would allow it to gain the world’s sympathy for engaging China directly in the South China Sea.
By shining lasers and spraying water, China does not need to resort to killing to effectively repel its adversaries and uphold its sovereignty in the South China Sea. Therefore, China can remain protected from foreign interference, at least in the present.
Avoiding the possibility of a viral outbreak in the South China Sea is very important for China. Avoiding the internationalization of this conflict issue will support China’s delay strategy – as argued by M. Taylor Fravel. The strategy is China’s efforts to buy time for the realization of the construction of its artificial islands and facilities on them in order to materialize its claims legally in the future. With this laser and water cannon diplomacy strategy, China is not only able to consistently maintain its sovereignty in the South China Sea but also to expedite the massive infrastructure development process that it is carrying out in that sea.