China’s long term policy in the South China Sea

China’s long term policy in the South China Sea

The South China Sea (SCS) is a major regional hotspot that embodies critical strategic importance in the Asia Pacific region […] as the de facto regional hegemon, China’s bold claims over almost the entire sea have triggered maritime standoffs and bilateral disputes with its neighbours, such as the legal fight with the Philippines and several skirmishes with Vietnam. These claims are part of China’s long-term strategic interests in the SCS.

By Revaz Topuria, Kay Lin Tay, Yenny Nguyen

The South China Sea (SCS) is a major regional hotspot that embodies critical strategic importance in the Asia Pacific region. Stretching from the Straits of Taiwan in the northeast to the Straits of Malacca in the southwest, the SCS boasts a wide variety of biodiversity, hosts more than 11% of world’s fishing industry and is a treasure trove of oil and gas resources. It is also one of the busiest waterways and harbours major sea ports between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Given the SCS’s strategic importance, several regional actors, including China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, have made competing claims for it. As the de facto regional hegemon, China’s bold claims over almost the entire sea have triggered maritime standoffs and bilateral disputes with its neighbours, such as the legal fight with the Philippines and several skirmishes with Vietnam. These claims are part of China’s long-term strategic interests in the SCS.

China’s strategic goals in the region:

  •      Attain and maintain total control over the Nine-Dash Line territory
  •      Gain the ability to project hard power beyond the SCS
  •      Enhance development and economic growth

While China’s long-term SCS policy is not explicitly stated, our analysis concludes that China will employ economic strategies, the attention span concept, and geographic projections, to meet its long-term goals and become a cultural, economic, and political hegemon.

 

Economic Strategy

China’s long-term goal is to sustain its economic growth and prosperity. As the majority of Chinese trade passes through the SCS, Beijing desires complete control over the SCS to protect its maritime routes. Moreover, the SCS is rich in resources, and complete control would reduce China’s external energy dependency and address the depletion of its fishery resources [1]. In the past, China has delayed imports and blocked exports until states to cave to its demands, and it will continue to use this ‘embargo’ tactic in the pursuit of national interests [2]. China recognizes that by using its neighbours’ economic security as a bargaining chip it can slowly take control of the SCS without much resistance. By using bilateral relations with its neighbours China has been able to increase its leverage in this negotiations. However, it must also address the US’ influence and operations in the region.

 

Attention Span Concept

China will use time to its advantage and work to erode and outmaneuver US influence and operations. Beijing believes that Washington is working to contain and undermine its influence and power in the Asia Pacific [3]. China understands that its military capabilities lag behind the US, and will therefore be pragmatic in assessing the use of force. By establishing rivals to US-led institutions in the region, China has slowly undercut US interests [4]. Slowly increasing its neighbours’ economic and diplomatic reliance on China will in-turn degrade US influence by outperforming it. China also recognizes that the US’ ability to focus on the region is limited due to its increasingly isolationist policies and involvement in wars abroad. Beijing hopes that the US’ attention on the region will be spread too thin by its involvements elsewhere to keep up with the changing geo-economic and geopolitical realities of the region. While China will attempt to avoid a major conflict, it will continue to degrade US influence by slowly changing the geographic reality of the SCS.

 

Geographic Projection

China views its lack of control over the SCS as an obstacle to projecting its power on the high seas. China’s trade routes are vulnerable to blockades beyond the first island chain, Beijing therefore recognises that it must first control the SCS in order to project power beyond it [5]. To address this issue, China will continue to construct artificial islands to establish new military bases at sea. These artificial islands and military bases serve three long-term purposes.

Firstly, they allow the Chinese military to continue employing a “cabbage” strategy that effectively denies other states’ access to existing islands [6]. This is done by surrounding an island, layer-by-layer like a cabbage, by enough civilian and military boats to prevent access. It also makes it difficult for the opposing party to differentiate between the civilian and military vessels, in the 21st century and the age of social media this makes the opponent look like the aggressor.

Secondly, they reduce the US’ ability to conduct freedom of navigation operations and military strikes within the SCS [7].

Thirdly, these bases allow China to sustain its military operations in the event of a conflict, increase its surveillance capabilities, and strengthen its claim over the maritime features [8]. These moves will allow China to slowly incorporate the entirety of the contested area under its control, increase the country’s military operational capabilities, and enhance its ability to project power in the SCS and beyond [9].

References

[1] Herscovitch, Benjamin. "A Balanced Threat Assessment of China’s South China 
Sea Policy." CATO Institute. August 28, 2017. 
https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/balanced-threat-assessment-chinas-south-china-sea-policy.

[2] Allison, Graham T. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides
Trap? New York: Houghton Miffin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2007.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 

[5] Holmes, James R., and Toshi Yoshinara. Red Star Over the Pacific:
China's Rise and the Challenge of U.S. Maritime Strategy.
Naval Institute Press, 2013.

[6] Cronin, Patrick M. "The Challenge of Responding to Maritime Coercion."
Center for a New American Security. 2014. Accessed July 18, 2018.
https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS_Maritime1_Cronin.pdf?mtime=20161010171140.

[7] Holmes, James R., and Toshi Yoshinara. Red Star Over the Pacific: China's 
Rise and the Challenge of U.S. Maritime Strategy. Naval Institute Press, 2013.

[8] Mori, Satoru. "Thinking About Long-term Strategy in the South China Sea." 
Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. January 13, 2017. 
Accessed July 18, 2018. https://amti.csis.org/long-term-strategy-scs/.

[9] Lim, Kheng Swe, Hailong Ju, and Mingjiang Li. "China’s Revisionist Aspirations
in Southeast Asia and the Curse of the South China Sea Disputes."
China: An International Journal 15, no. 1, 187-213 
and
Cronin, Patrick M. "The Challenge of Responding to Maritime Coercion."
Center for a New American Security. 2014. Accessed July 18, 2018.
https://s3.amazonaws.com/files.cnas.org/documents/CNAS_Maritime1_Cronin.pdf?mtime=20161010171140.

 

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