China’s Expansion into the South China Sea

China’s Expansion into the South China Sea

“Territorial and jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea are a source of tension and potential conflict between China and other countries in the region. The main point of contention and instability is China’s assertion that it has a historical right to the vast majority of the South China Sea in spite of numerous other countries’ recognised territorial claims. China’s aggressive attitude has created substantial tension not only in the region but also for the rest of the international community.”

by Matthew Wentworth

The South China Sea (SCS) is, territorially, one of the most highly disputed regions in the world. It is a one and a half million square mile zone bordered by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Each of these countries have overlapping claims to different parts of the sea. The varying countries’ major interest in the SCS is in its vast resources, it contains 11 billion barrels worth of oil under the seabed, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 10% of the world’s fisheries, 30% of all overseas shipping, and acts as the gateway to the economic markets of Southeast Asia[i]. Of the countries listed above, five of them currently hold a territorial claim to some part of the sea, those being; China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Most of these countries base their territorial claim off the UN Law of the Seas which asserts that a country’s territorial waters extend 200 miles off their shoreline, an area that is titled their ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ). Countries have exclusive rights to all the resources and trade in their EEZ as it remains their sovereign territory, but anything outside of the 200-mile zone is considered international waters, the resources found therein are shared by everyone[ii]. Every country in the SCS region uses the 200-mile EEZ threshold to determine its claims and set its boundaries, except China.

       China argues that they have a historical claim to the SCS dating back to naval expeditions, setting their boundaries using something called the ‘Nine Dash Line’ which encompasses 90% of the SCS[iii]. The Nine Dash Line claim is exacerbating competing claims over a number of nearby islands, primarily the Paracel, Senkaku, and Spratly groups of islands. These islands are remote and barely inhabited but are nevertheless currently claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, all of who consider them strategically important because a legitimate claim to one or more of the islands would also amount to control of the 200-mile EEZ around them[iv]. With this in mind, China are using two strategies to expand their territory as part of their Grand Strategic Naval Vision[v]. Firstly, they are building on the islands, Fiery Cross Island for example is home to everything from a Chinese military base to a missile defence system made possible by extensive land reclamation efforts in the surrounding waters[vi]. China have also created military base islands out of six other reefs since 2014 which currently hold 800 troops, and three of which have 3 kilometer long runways making them effectively aircraft carriers. China’s building of these islands is a move to increase control of the surrounding waters. The second tactic used by China to achieve this aim is termed the ‘Cabbage Strategy’ in which the Chinese Navy surround a contested island with as many ships as possible to restrict access by any other country, including that which it officially belongs to. In the case of the Philippine Island of Ayungin Shoal for example, China sealed off Philippine access with fishing boats, surveillance ships, and Navy destroyers, creating a blockade in spite of Philippine efforts to defend their domain[vii]. The more islands China have control of, the more ships they can support, and the more territory they can claim and subsequently utilise.

           China’s aggressive expansion into the SCS is more than just a regional issue, it has also caused clashes stemming from military operations conducted by the United States (U.S.) in China’s disputed territory[viii]. In response to U.S. military operations and navigations executed within China’s Nine Dash Line, China have attempted to curtail the freedom of navigation and overflight above the EEZs by introducing an Air Identification Zone, over which China asserts all aircraft must identify themselves and gain prior permission from China before flying through the zone, even going as far as to threaten with firepower U.S. military aircraft who fail to do so[ix]. The U.S.’ involvement in the region could increase further due to the intensifying conflict of interests over natural resources and the continuing territorial dispute. The U.S. has numerous allies in the region, including a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty signed with the Philippines[x]. In 2016 the International Court at The Hague ruled that China had invaded Philippine territory but China ignored the ruling. Though the U.S. had previously announced a committal not to get involved in the region, further disregard for international law on China’s part might spark intervention from the U.S. or other countries in the SCS (though action through economic sanctions is perhaps most likely).

The surrounding countries openly interpret China’s continuation to expand its military bases in the SCS through island building as a deliberate step towards regional dominance and aggressive military expansion[xi]. China do not dispute the U.S.’ findings, obtained through satellite imagery, of what they are building on the islands, merely their intentions. Regardless, the surrounding countries retain concerns, with Japan even considering altering their constitution in order to allow them to hold an army capable of attack[xii]. China’s refusal to recognise the 200 nautical mile territorial boundary is considered on the international stage to be illegal, their militarisation of the territory they continue to claim demonstrates an aggressive attitude, and these two factors combined are causing substantial tension both in the region and in the international community.

[i]Yoshimatsu, H. (2017) ‘China, Japan and the South China Sea Dispute: Pursuing Strategic Goals Through Economic and Institutional Means’. Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 4(3). Pp.294-315.
[ii]Freund, E. (2017) Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea: A Practical Guide. Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
[iii]Gao, Z. and Jia, B. B. (2013) ‘The nine-dash line in the South China Sea: History, status, and implications’. American Journal of International Law, 107 (1). Pp.98-123.
[iv]Suzuki, S. (2012) Conflict among ASEAN members over the South China sea issue. Chiba: Institute of Developing Economies Japan External Trade Organization.
[v]Avdaliani, E. (2018) China’s Naval Success and Its Grand Strategy. Montreal: Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. 
[vi]Kyodo (2018) ‘China has built seven new military bases in South China Sea, US navy commander says’. South China Morning Post. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 May 2019]. 
[vii]Kazianis, H. (2013) ‘China’s Expanding Cabbage Strategy’. The Diplomat. [online] Available at: /[Accessed 20 May 2019].
[viii]Erickson, A. S. (2016) ‘America’s Security Role in the South China Sea’. Naval War College Review, 69(1). Pp.7-21.
[ix]Glaser, B. S. (2012) Armed Clash in the South China Sea. New York: Council on Foreign Relations.
[x]Shines, R. M. (2016) ‘U.S. allies in the South China Sea’. Global Risk Insights. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 May 2019].
[xi]Allison, G. (2017) ‘China vs. America: Managing the Next Clash of Civilizations’. Foreign Affairs,96(5). Pp.80-89.
[xii]McDevitt, M. (2014) ‘The South China Sea: Assessing US policy and options for the future’. CNA Occasional Paper. Pp.1-92. 

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