South China Sea Disputes: The China Dimension
By Jun Hui, Editor
One regional development that has seen frequent news coverage is the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS). Among Southeast Asian countries, the claimant states to the SCS include Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam . Their disputes with China over reefs, islands, fisheries, potential oil and gas reserves in the SCS are not new and in fact had started in the 1970s . In the past decade, however, the conflict has intensified due to China’s actions and policies, which include its militarisation of islands and a controversial nine-dash line claim on nearly 90% of the SCS .
Since the start of its island-building efforts and militarisation of the SCS in 2013, China has reclaimed over 3,200 acres of land in the contested Spratly Islands . Its fishing and coast guard vessels have often entered into the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of every Southeast Asian claimant state, and have “methodically pushed back” the Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats “from parts of their (own) EEZs” .
Notwithstanding public criticism by the US, which has steadfastly denounced China’s maritime claims as unlawful, China has pursued its territorial expansion in the SCS with relative “impunity” . The broader significance of these developments is that they signal the emergence of China as a key player in Southeast Asia’s security environment, which has been generally stable for decades due to the US’s military hegemony in the region .
To better understand the SCS disputes’ future trajectory, it helps to examine the role played by China, whose relative economic and military might allow it to heavily influence the substance and speed of developments in the SCS. In particular, exploring China’s intentions and capabilities with regards to the SCS will help to shed light on the coming strategic environment in the SCS.
The SCS and China’s maritime security policy
To explain China’s “assertive territorial claims and land reclamation efforts'' in the SCS, analysts have provided some commonly cited economic and strategic reasons . The SCS’s economic value lies in its vast fishing grounds and “estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas” . It also has strategic value as a vital waterway connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, through which a third of global shipping passes annually.
At the same time, articles on China’s actions in the SCS less frequently discuss the influence of its maritime security policy, which serves to defend the country against sea-borne threats. At a basic level, this maritime security policy is shaped by the particular geography of China’s maritime periphery . Nevertheless, maritime security is not simply a case of securing a country’s immediate waters, given today’s military context of long-range missiles, aircraft carriers, and armed submarines. This is especially true for China because of its strained relations with the US, which happens to be a military superpower with a heavy security presence in East Asia .
The US’s unease towards China’s rise as the number two global power has resulted in its tough approach towards China, with which it now competes across economic, political, and military spheres. A consequence of their strategic competition is China’s increased focus on its national security, which includes maritime security. China’s security competition with the US in East Asia also entails potential conflict with neighbouring Japan, due to the latter being the US’s top military ally in the region.
For China to defend against the vast military capabilities of its rivals, it is beneficial or even crucial to establish a military presence further offshore in the East China Sea (ECS) and SCS, which are its regional waters. China’s 2015 defence white paper reflected this imperative by stating that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) would “enhance its capabilities for strategic deterrence and counterattack” in accordance with “the strategic requirement of offshore waters defence and open seas protection” .
It is conceivable that China’s maritime security policy, as articulated in its white paper, has been a key driver of its recent SCS behaviour. Such an explanation accounts for China’s concerted efforts at land reclamation and militarisation of islands in the SCS. In fact, Singapore’s Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen noted in his 2019 Munich Security Conference speech that China saw its military build-up in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands as a “direct response to the encirclement policy articulated in the early 1950s through the three island chains” . This ‘encirclement policy’ refers to the Island Chain Strategy, which China views as a US military policy to contain it .
In particular, analysts have pointed out how securing the SCS could benefit China: firstly, China can use the SCS (and the military assets it places there) as a buffer zone against potential US attacks on mainland China. Secondly, the SCS would provide operating space for China’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines, which need to enter the western Pacific Ocean for nuclear deterrence against the US .
Economic asymmetry between China and Southeast Asia
A caveat is that China’s maritime security policy per se does not fully explain its actions and expansive claims in the SCS. Instead, it is the mixture of this policy with the power imbalance - in economic and military terms - between China and Southeast Asia that accounts for developments in the SCS. Asymmetry between the Chinese and Southeast Asian economies has spurred their integration, which then increased the Southeast Asian claimant states’ economic dependency on China. These states’ vulnerability to potential economic retaliation has inadvertently constrained their policy responses to China’s actions in the SCS.
China has grown into the world’s second largest economy, with a GDP of roughly US$14 trillion (in 2020) which is more than four times of Southeast Asia’s GDP . Over the years, Southeast Asian economies have greatly benefited from China’s vast market and value as a processing hub . Between 2015 to 2019, China was the top import partner of the four Southeast Asian claimant states and was among the top five export partners of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam .
As China continues its economic integration with Southeast Asia through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Southeast Asian claimant states risk being economically overdependent on China . In itself, economic dependency is worrisome because it implies vulnerability to uncontrollable forces, like China’s economic shifts and economic policies.
However, the relevant concern here is vulnerability to China’s economic statecraft, especially punitive measures like trade sanctions that seek to pressure other states into making political concessions . The threat of economic statecraft in the SCS conflict is real, given China’s past uses of punitive economic measures to tackle its disputes in the ECS and SCS, with the former involving the world’s third largest economy Japan .
The inherent attractions of China’s huge economy have made it appealing and logical for the Southeast Asian claimant states to deepen economic ties. However, this has produced economic dependency which then made China’s economic statecraft more potent and effective. Therefore, economic asymmetry between China and Southeast Asia has ultimately dissuaded the latter’s claimant states from contesting China’s recent SCS actions, for fear of suffering economic costs.
Military asymmetry between China and Southeast Asia
At the same time, the military imbalance between China and Southeast Asia has created a more straightforward inability by the latter’s claimant states to physically challenge China’s SCS actions. China has translated its economic resources into a military advantage over the other claimant states in the SCS . Financial ability explains the unmatched scale of China’s dredging, island-building, and militarisation operations in the SCS . It also explains the technical superiority of Chinese vessels operating in the SCS vis-à-vis those of rival claimants’ . Being larger, better-armed and grouped together, China’s coast guard and fishing vessels have often entered the other claimants’ EEZs and have “methodically pushed back” Vietnamese and Filipino fishing boats from parts of their own EEZs .
The military asymmetry is perhaps most sharply felt in the context of EEZ violations and fishing vessel clashes: activities in which the US naval presence does not intervene because they do not sufficiently cross the US’s red lines. As a result, the actual implementation of EEZ and fishing rights often ends up being decided by a grim comparison of physical might. In contrast to the case of economic asymmetry, the military imbalance between China and the Southeast Asian claimants leads to a more clear-cut inability by the latter to resist China’s SCS actions.
In summary, the power asymmetry between China and the Southeast Asian claimant states has paved the way for China’s pursuit of maritime security in the SCS, by reducing the ability and willingness of other claimant states to resist China’s actions.
The SCS disputes’ relevance to Singapore
From Singapore’s point of view, the SCS disputes are unresolved and thus pose a security and economic challenge for Southeast Asia, which is Singapore’s immediate region. At the same time, Singapore is a non-claimant state and has no direct stake in the disputes. Moreover, geographical distance serves to reinforce Singapore’s sense of insulation from the conflict: a considerable stretch of sea lies between Singapore and the southwestern-most edges of the nine-dash line, which represents the extent of China’s claims to the SCS .
Nevertheless, the SCS issue remains a worthy regional development to follow. The power asymmetry between China and the Southeast Asian claimants is likely to grow and could permanently alter not just the SCS’s security environment but even that of the broader Southeast Asia region. The SCS disputes could also have consequences for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which is both Southeast Asia’s foremost regional institution and a core part of Singapore’s foreign policy.
By virtue of its economic and military might, China has heavily influenced the shape and direction of developments in the SCS. Its pivotal role in the SCS disputes explains the importance of understanding its strategic intentions and the economic and military aspects of its relations with the rival claimant states. The combination of China’s maritime security policy and its economic and military superiority explains why China has been able to make expansive claims and pursue large-scale reclamation and militarisation activities in the SCS.
Moving forward, it is also instructive to understand the involvement in the SCS by the US, which the Southeast Asian claimant states view as a vital offshore balancer . The US’s economic and military engagements with Southeast Asia are longstanding and substantial, and more recently have been renewed under Joe Biden’s presidency.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris made their first visits to Asia in July and August 2021 respectively, during which they spoke about the SCS disputes . The latest AUKUS security pact between Australia, the US, and the UK will see, among other things, Australia acquire nuclear-powered submarines . The pact may heighten the security competition in the Asia-Pacific between the US and China, possibly even expanding the latter’s conception of the maritime area it needs to secure, with repercussions for militarisation activities in the SCS.
Given that China and the US are the most influential players in the SCS, their respective SCS policies and (more crucially) the management of their bilateral relationship will greatly impact the coming prospects for peace and stability in the SCS.
Jun Hui is a Year 4 Economics undergraduate serving as an Editor at The Convergence. He joined as an Editor out of a desire to add to the university’s intellectual discourse. Some of his hobbies include watching films (from the thriller genre in particular), exploring places in nature with friends, reading fiction (mostly detective and crime novels) and non-fiction (politics, history, economics, etc).