What the South China Sea Teaches Us About Geopolitics

By: Michael Daly, Columnist

Photo: Former United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates with now-President of China Xi Jinping (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The fierce territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) between China and five other littoral nations threaten to unravel the stability of the Asia-Pacific. In the past two years, the Chinese have exponentially raised the stakes by morphing seven (potentially eight) submerged land features in the Spratly Islands into nearly 3,000 acres of man-made islands. Beijing’s subsequent ‘militarization’ of these islands (construction of three airstrips, radar towers, artillery emplacements, barracks, etc.) has created deep suspicion among competing claimants of its true intentions and introduced a new fissure in Sino-American relations. It is imperative for American statesmen, in formulating a coherent response, to comprehend the all-important ‘why’ factor. Why is China willing to risk this substantial escalation of hostility? What is in it for Beijing? While there is much debate regarding that query, the strategic advantages offered by the geography of the SCS is the principal factor motivating Beijing’s activity.

Chinese Pride

One popular, yet incomplete, narrative to explain Beijing’s behavior lies in the nature of China’s identity. Beijing views itself as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ that has historically enjoyed a culturally superior and strategically dominant role in Asia.[i] President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ revolves around resurgence to this supremacy in the 21st century, and irredentism is imperative toward that end. Beijing therefore views any territorial disputes with its neighbors as an opportunity to demonstrate its emergence from the ‘century of humiliation’ and its readiness to join the highest echelons of global power. Hence, the SCS is the focal stage of an “international chest beating competition”[ii] where the status of its people hangs in the balance and backing down is not an option. These ideas of prestige and national honor, so the narrative goes, explain the type of diplomatic intransigence evident in Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s exclamation that changing China’s position would “shame its ancestors”.[iii] They also underpin China’s ‘9-dash line,’ an ambiguous U-shaped territorial assertion to 80% of the SCS that Beijing justifies via dubious historical records claiming that the Tang Dynasty administered territory within the line as far back as the 9th century.[iv]

While this narrative is valid in the sense that the Chinese are deeply nationalistic and are determined to eradicate the legacy of the ‘century of humiliation’, relying on notions of identity and prestige to explain Chinese activity obfuscates the inherent geopolitical value of the Spratly Islands. To be sure, the ‘China Dream’ finds currency among the people and will continue to motivate an increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy in the years to come. However, it does not get at the intrinsic link between the geography of the SCS and China’s core security interests. American policy risks exacerbating hostility if it evinces tunnel vision with regard to Beijing’s desire for prestige and fails to understand this link.

Chinese Geopolitics

The alternative, and more thorough, narrative accounts for the geopolitical value of the SCS by highlighting three material interests that alter China’s strategic calculus. First, the SCS is one of the busiest international trading routes in the world. Approximately half of all annual maritime trade sails through the SCS, including 80% of China’s oil imports. This constitutes a glaring vulnerability[v] for the Chinese because the primary security guarantor of these strategically vital lines of communication is the US Navy, which provides America the leverage to choke off Chinese supplies in the event of a conflict. Second, the SCS is rich in resources, especially fisheries and hydrocarbons. The Sea constitutes 10% of the global annual seafood catch[vi] and nearly half of all global fish consumption occurs in countries near the SCS.[vii] Moreover, there are an estimated seven billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas beneath the seabed of the SCS. Acquiring access to all of these resources would be a boon to China’s capacity for self-sufficiency. Third, the Spratlys are geostrategically located to project power regionally and globally. Beijing’s man-made islands, by providing crucial refueling locations, enable increased naval and aerial patrols of the SCS. This expanding presence offers the dual benefit of monitoring competing claimants’ activity, a potentially troublesome development if China attempts to deny these countries’ access to resources in their respective exclusive economic zones, and preventing the American military from operating with impunity in China’s backyard.[viii] That is, its airstrips will facilitate a greater air force presence, its radar towers will augment Beijing’s intelligence and situational awareness, and its man-made islands could act as a port for Chinese naval vessels. This would be particularly advantageous for China’s submarines, which could refuel in the deep waters of the Spratly Islands and thus increase their operational presence in the SCS and in the Indian and Pacific oceans. While the American navy remains dominant in the Asia-Pacific today, such a burgeoning military footprint constitutes a force with which US assets will increasingly have to reckon.

Strategic Implications

The upshot of the foregoing analysis is that man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago make sound strategic sense for Beijing. They will enhance China’s self-reliance in securing their sea lines of communication, thereby mitigating the US Navy’s regional leverage. The islands could ostensibly provide China with preferential access to the coveted resources of the SCS. And the reclaimed land will facilitate a crucial long-term objective of China’s military—to acquire a global footprint.[ix] In sum, Beijing’s transformation of the geography of the SCS enhances its hard power and provides substantive strategic advantages. This intrinsic link between geography and security is the central lesson of geopolitics, an adequate account for which is not provided by the China pride narrative. Hence, in order to avoid miscalculation and conflict with Beijing, the US response must understand that the SCS disputes are not simply a matter of prestige, but markedly impact China’s core security interests.

[i] Kissinger, Henry. 2011. On China. New York: Penguin Press: pg. 1-51.

[ii] Hayton, Bill. 2014. The South China Sea: The Struggle For Power In Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press: pg. 267.

[iii] Blanchard, Ben. 2015. ‘China Says Changing Position On Sea Dispute Would Shame Ancestors’. Reuters. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/06/27/us-southchinasea-china-idUSKBN0P708U20150627.

[iv] French, Howard. 2015. ‘What’s Behind Beijing’s Drive To Control The South China Sea?’. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/28/whats-behind-beijings-drive-control-south-china-sea-hainan.

[v] Grygiel, Jakub J. 2006. Great Powers And Geopolitical Change. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: pg. 27-28.

[vi] Nathan, Andrew J, and Andrew Scobell. 2012. China’s Search For Security. New York: Columbia University Press: pg. 141.

[vii] The World Bank,. 2013. Fish To 2030: Prospects For Fisheries And Aquaculture. Washington, DC: The World Bank. http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/01/31/000461832_20140131135525/Rendered/PDF/831770WP0P11260ES003000Fish0to02030.pdf.

[viii] French, 2015.

[ix] Joyner, Christopher C. 1998. ‘The Spratly Islands Dispute: Rethinking The Interplay Of Law, Diplomacy, And Geo-Politics In The South China Sea’. The International Journal Of Marine And Coastal Law 13 (2): 208-209.

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