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Second test flights performed at Nansha Islands

China determined to project forces in the South China Sea – Bang Tran | Futura Institute

27 January 2016

China’s expansion in the South China Sea: From small steps to a giant leap

On January 2, 2016, a Chinese Cessna Citation Sovereign 680 landed on the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, one of the 7 features occupied by China in Spratly Islands. On January 6, China carried out test flights of two large commercial airliners at this newly built airfield,. People cannot help but wonder how that could happen on a submerged feature by nature. Indeed, the airfield was not built in one day; eventually the work already began in 1987.

Second test flights performed at Nansha Islands

Airbus A319 (China Southern Airlines) and Boeing B737 (Hainan Airlines) on Fiery Cross Reef. Jan 6, 2016. ©Xinhua

According to IHS Jane’s report and CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, in March 1987, China agreed to build 5 weather monitoring stations, including one in the South China Sea, for an UNESCO project. China used this to justify its occupation of features in Spratly Islands. The Chinese occupation of features led to confrontations with Vietnam. The most serious incident was the March 1988 Johnson Reef skirmish where Chinese navy attacked, killed 64 Vietnamese, sunk 3 Vietnamese ships and finally occupied Johnson South Reef. Aftermath, China moved quickly to consolidate its presence. By the end of 1988, China had occupied six reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands. In 1990, China built a two-story concrete structure on Fiery Cross Reef, believed to be an observation post, and then added a helipad as well as a pier shortly. Within 14 years, China had added to the facility a soldier’s garrison, a helipad, a wharf, a greenhouse, communication equipment and coastal artillery.

August 14, 2014

Fiery Cross Reef, August 14, 2014. © CSIS

September 3, 2015

Fiery Cross Reef, September 3, 2015. © CSIS

It was the turning point in summer 2014 when China started land reclamation in all of 7 occupied features, and then accelerated with the completion of airstrips and ports. However, this went unnoticed as the world was distracted by the Hysy-981 standoff, which happened at the same time as China started to speed up work in Fiery Cross Reef as well as in other 6 features. One year later, from small military outposts, China had built bases that can be used for both civilian and military forces. In the near future, once all the facilities are installed, the artificial islands would become strategic bases for China to control and project forces to the South China Sea.

Strategic values of the artificial islands: securing China’s core interests

With all Paracel islands and the 7 artificial islands in Spratly islands, which are much larger than all the natural ones in Spratly islands, China now holds a strategic position in the South China Sea. The airstrips and ports can serve as logistics and frontier command posts for intelligence, patrol and force projection. Before the construction of airstrips and large ports, China was unable to control the South China Sea where China claims for almost all the waters despite the protest of ASEAN countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei). Lacking of efficient air, navy tankers or long range systems, China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and Air force cannot operate thousand kilometers far from its farthest southern bases in Hainan with the current combat systems. The 3110m length, 200-300m width airstrips meet the requirements to support all kinds of aircrafts, from UAVs, fighters, early warning aircrafts to medium and heavy transport aircrafts.

Furthermore, the bases provide China facilities and the real ability to control a vast area next to its border, which is vital for its economy. China, the world second largest economy, imports more and more fossil fuel and natural resources from Africa and Middle East. The lion share of China’s import and export pass through the South China Sea, Malacca strait and Indian Ocean. Without supports from coastal military bases, these sea lanes are vulnerable. Hence, China would need to secure these lanes with its navy. Analysts believe that the sea ports in Malaysia (Klang), Myanmar (Sittwe and Kyaukpyu), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka (Hambantota and Colombo), and Pakistan (Gwadar) could play a bigger role rather than commercial ports, especially in crisis. Those who do not believe in the “spring of pearls” strategy develop a theory saying that China is not able to build military bases in South and Southeast Asian countries, at least in short or mid-term, due to the “swing” policy of these countries. Also, as the matter of fact, China does not have sufficient experience and technology in that area. They might be right but in reality China still continues building ports wherever they can for potential military purpose. To date, China has established bases in Paracel and Spratly islands and continues to negotiate with Djibouti to set up a military base.

Other than territorial claim and maritime transport security, China might want to keep away threats coming from other global and regional powers such as the US and India far from its border. The bases in Paracel and Spratly islands allow China to access to the deep blue waters. 30 years on, China has been building its navy from a near shore, purely defensive force to a blue sea navy. The announcement of building indigenously a new aircraft carrier is merely the emerging part of an iceberg. China has reorganized and modernized not only the PLA structure but also its defense technology and industrial base. Without a comprehensive organization, the PLA in general and the PLA Navy in particular, does not have any chance to neither challenge the US in the Pacific and Indian oceans nor dominate the regional powers’ navies.

In the South China Sea, the 7 artificial islands occupied by China is the real game changer. Before the land reclamation in 2014, these outposts were small, isolated and ill-supplied. They could be accessed by helicopters and maritime supply ships only. Upon the completion of airfield, ports and necessary military equipment, it fully unleashes the potential of those artificial islands. In war time, especially short and local scale war, military aircrafts and warships from Fiery Cross Reef and Cuarteron Reef could deny access between the southern part and the central part of Spratly islands. And in a very short time, the bases in Subi, Hughes, Gaven, Johnson and Mischief Reefs could effectively overwhelm the much less powerful Vietnamese or Philippines outposts in the center of Spratly islands. In such scenario, if China succeeded to isolate and overwhelm parts of Spratly islands, they could rapidly take over a large number of features in Spratly islands in a considerable short time, before any agreement of ceasefire. There is a chance for such scenario given what happened in Paracels islands in 1956 and 1974, Spratly islands in 1988 and 1995, and in Scarborough Shoal in 2012, where China all gained control and access.

China’s commitment: DOC and the future of COC?

In 2002, China and ASEAN members signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In the DOC, China and ASEAN member states declared to “reaffirm their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations” and “ are committed to exploring ways for building trust and confidence in accordance with the above-mentioned principles and on the basis of equality and mutual respect”. China and ASEAN also committed to “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”. However, in reality, since 2002, China law reinforcement force and China fishing boats have rammed, harassed and sunk Vietnamese fishing boats,,, fired at fishermen, cut the cable of Vietnamese survey boat, etc. In 2014, China anchored the Hysy-981 in the EEZ of Vietnam. And the most aggressive move is the land reclamation in summer 2014 in all 7 features occupied by China.

In the declaration, ASEAN and China reaffirmed that “the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability”. Given the actual situation in the South China Sea, the future of the COC is still unknown.

Bang Tran is president of X-Vietnam (Association of Vietnamese students of Ecole Polytechnique) and Futura Institute (a Paris-based think-tank on Asia-Pacific issues). Contact:

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Changing Geopolitical Landscape In The South China Sea | Anup Singh (Retd), SEAS Issues

16 February 2015

by Anup Singh (Retd), Former Vice Admiral at Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Naval Command at Visakhapatnam


Geopolitics. In its simplest meaning, geopolitics involves an assessment of the effects of geography on politics, and relations between nations. When one talks of ‘effects of geography’, the influence of a country’s physical location, size, technological progress, demography, topography, climate, and most importantly natural resources, make the difference between the big, and the not-so-big in terms of power and ‘stakes’ in power play. Significantly, geopolitics studies the links between political power and geographic space, and examines strategic prescriptions based on the relative importance of land power and sea power.

Two watershed events have changed the world. One, the fall of the Berlin Wall circa 1989; and two: the tragic fall of the World Trade Towers on 9/11. If one were to look at the difference between conflict and peace in temporal terms, it would be quite apparent that the template of peace changed forever with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It actually feels as if the Balance of Power theorem kept peace in this world during the cold war! But after that event which was immediately followed by the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, the proverbial dominos of peace have been falling one after the other in various theatres of the globe. In sum, the non-traditional amongst threats and challenges have now replaced traditional conflict. If terrorism, piracy, drug and gun running, were already keeping nations fully engaged in security management, the current paradigm has a new trigger for infusing tension amongst nations – through intimidation and aggressive posturing in some regions.

Southeast Asian Military Modernization. (C) The Asian Forum

The Indo-Pacific Region

Till the middle of the last decade, the Indian and Pacific Oceans were never thought of as a contiguous domain. The clear linkage of economic activity that spans across the trade and energy routes from the Suez and Hormuz on the one end, to the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok Straits, leading into the South China Sea on the other, and the attendant security threats in the maritime environment, have left no doubt in any one’s mind about the necessity of the region being seen as a continuum. Hence the term: Indo-Pacific. This is the region where all activity economic, as well as military, has been concentrated over the past decade. The rise of China – as an economic giant and a reckonable military power – also influences the treatment of the region as a geographic continuum. China’s growing maritime capabilities, increased interaction in the Indian Ocean, economic interests in both oceans, and territorial/ maritime boundary claims against its neighbours in both oceans, have created a greater sense of insecurity throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Without doubt, this region is now a conspicuously significant strategic space.

The global economy too has witnessed a huge shift from its post-colonial residence in the Western Hemisphere, to the East – where all money has suddenly gravitated over the last decade and a half. That has meant a shift of focus for the world to an area that is being called the Indo-Pacific. It is now the most watched theatre of competition, rivalry, and power play. Few regions of the world have changed as rapidly, after World War II, as the Indo-Pacific region. New powers – based on economic surge – have risen to claim their dominion within what is being seen as the most important geostrategic arena of maximum global attention. The Indian Ocean which was considered a ‘placid lake’, as distinct from the Pacific, till only a couple of years ago, is now being called the crucible of new challenges – both, traditional, and non-traditional. The two oceans are decidedly linked to each other, for all aspects of geography, economy, and indeed strategy! The centrality of the Indo-Pacific region lies in trade, density and concentration of shipping lanes, energy and other mineral resources. One common thread that has united most stakeholder states in the Indo-Pacific is maritime security – which can no longer be defined by threat to seaborne commerce alone. It includes all the elements of traditional and non-traditional challenges, the latter including maritime terrorism, piracy, gun running, drug running, poaching, natural and man-made disasters, and effects of climate change. The overall security scenario of the Indo-Pacific therefore, goes beyond a mere assessment of the balance of power equation or the political equation. Recent developments have shown that the geopolitical canvas of the Indo-Pacific has altered the very nature of interaction between states. The convergence of value inputs in terms of trade, resources, and energy makes this new geographic construct a region of acute vulnerability to peace, and stability. The sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that pass through the region – including those passing through the Red Sea; Persian Gulf; Malacca Strait, and particularly the South China Sea – are some of the most critical trade routes of the world as they carry almost 2/3rd of the world’s energy; half of global containerized cargo; and a third of the world’s bulk cargo[i]. This is one factor of politico-economic dimension that hugely impacts the geopolitical canvas of the region.

The ‘business’ of growing commerce in the Indo-Pacific involves and affects nearly half the globe’s population residing here. Today’s rising economic powers such as China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, and Australia, are principal constituents of this newly defined region. Without doubt, economy is one of the important factors that influence regional politics in an area that has generally been identified by interstate cooperation, healthy (and sometimes unhealthy) competition, rivalry in business and politics, and even some incidence of conflict. However, despite impressive figures of economic growth in the region, one factor of burden that looms large on most of the region is poverty. This factor stems from a lack of employment opportunities in many countries. This is a huge handicap, as it bears the risk of instability, turmoil, and if unchecked, widens the disparity between the rich and poor. The root causes include decades of developmental challenges, followed by recent phenomenon of weak industrial output due to trends of recession/low demand. This scenario calls for regional actors to ‘manage the change’ in terms of the altered dynamics of trade, manufacturing, expanding maritime infrastructure, and of course, security of sea lanes and ports – to minimize risks against progression.

One has to keep in mind that the common thread keeping the Indo-Pacific’s integrity as a geographic region is the sea. The ocean has been responsible for binding the littorals and peoples of different locales, and spurred them on to making economic progress through competition. The Indo-Pacific is decidedly the new locus of all important economic activity. It is also being seen as the new centre of gravity for strategic competition of the world.

The South China Sea

At 3.6 million square kilometers, the South China Sea is one of the largest semi-enclosed seas. It is bounded by ten maritime states, has many groups of islands including the Spratlys and Paracels, and is home to two prominent underwater plateaus – the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal. Almost half of the mercantile fleet of the world passes through the South China Sea. Six of the ten littoral states in this sea claim parts of it. Some of these are overlapping claims, and are therefore considered conflict-prone disputes. Amidst the very dynamic flurry of activity in this region, the one episode that has challenged the status quo in the geopolitical scenario of the Indo-Pacific in general, and the South China Sea in particular, is the gridlock of territorial and maritime zone claims in the South China Sea. Fuelled by disputes due to the so called “Nine Dash Line”, it has burned bridges amongst neighbours, and promises to keep the sea lines of communication under threat of ‘restriction’ rather than under ‘freedom of navigation’ due to what is being projected as the only claim of ‘ownership’ of a large part of the sea!

China’s Claims

The South China Sea dispute is a case of overlapping and conflicting claims over territory and sovereignty in the Paracel and Spratly island chains, as well as over large areas in the open sea, claimed wholly or in part by China and some others. Alongside the full-fledged islands, there are dozens of uninhabited rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough shoal[ii]. China claims almost the entire water body enclosed within the Nine Dash Line – accounting for 90% of the total area of the South China Sea. China claims its ownership based on 2,000 years of history, and says that the Paracels and Spratlys were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation[iii]. China says it issued a map in 1947, detailing these claims (originally with eleven instead of the nine dashes). Taiwan (as the Republic of China) stakes its own claim to the original map. China has ‘forcefully’ occupied certain islands, and has now started reclaiming land around some reefs and rocks as well. And even before arguments on the basis of the Nine Dash Line were over, China has produced a tenth dash! In June 2014, China published a new official map of its territory that went a step ahead of its map-on-passport act two years ago: the new map now introduces a tenth dash! The expansion is akin to a rich man getting greedier by the day, and staking claims even on the “commons” around his estate.

The Beginning

It was in 1974 that the South China Sea first saw the ugly face of annexation by force. That episode involved China sinking a Vietnamese naval vessel, damaging a couple of others, with some 50 casualties on the Vietnamese side. The ‘one way’ battle was designed to outmaneuver Vietnam by use of force – without provocation – to wrest control. Vietnam has always claimed that it exercised sovereignty over the Paracels and the Spratlys, since the 17th Century – following from occupation by the Nguyen dynasty, then by France during its colonization. This was followed by the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) controlling the Western part of the Paracels, while China took control of the Eastern part. In the Spratlys, Itu Aba was occupied by Taiwanese troops, while some other features came under control of South Vietnam. The Phillipines and Malaysia entered some features in the Spratlys – for the first time – in the 70s, and 80s, respectively. Finally, China entered the Spratlys for the first time in 1988, once again through use of force against Vietnamese Transport vessels[iv].

The Guiding Principles

The Law is clear on the award of title for a territory. The principle of “effectiveness”, enunciated in Roman law in the 19th Century, refers to a mode of acquisition of a title founded on the “continuous and peaceful exercise” of state authority[v]. Only by such method of acquisition, can a state lay claim and exercise sovereignty over hitherto unclaimed and abandoned territories, and not by use of force. Therefore, all territories within the two groups of islands that have been occupied by use of force are – on first principles – invalid as to Title. Secondly, the Chinese claim of ownership of these groups for more than 2000 years is not borne out by any historical evidence. It is settled law that the “principle of effectiveness” has been the only basis to recognize sovereignty over hitherto unoccupied territory. Effectiveness refers to a mode of acquisition of a title “founded on the peaceful and continuous display of State authority over the territory”[vi]. Further, a state can become a title holder of ‘terra res nullius’ through effective occupation, and continuous and peaceful exercise of such State authority. It follows then, that forcible occupation cannot be accepted – unless authorized by International Law – for occupation of territory and consequent accord of ‘Title’. Therefore, the two incidents of use of military force by China in 1974, and 1988, do not qualify under the effective occupation principle for ownership.

The Method

Some analysts have recently pointed out that China’s actions are a case of emulation from a chapter of contemporary history – dealing with the Monroe Doctrine. Two centuries ago, US President James Monroe, and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, invoked a new foreign policy doctrine that forbade foreign (intended against European) powers from colonizing, or interfering in Latin America any further. Monroe said this sphere constituted a “core interest” of the United States. However, while the original purpose of the Monroe Doctrine was to prevent any further colonization of Latin America, or conflict with existing colonies (seeking independence) by European powers, its use over the later decades of the 19th century – in annexation, or intervention, is what has made that doctrine somewhat controversial. So, while the world acquiesced to the United States’ sermon in that era (despite some rumblings in Europe), that was “then” – when a powerful “initiator” was unchallengeable, since there were no ‘rules of the road’ in the maritime domain. But enough water has flown since, and with institutions and treaties having civilized the the post-1945 world, “might” cannot be granted (the) “right” in this respect, today. If China is trying to replicate (its own) interpretation of that doctrine, it is obviously misinterpreting the real purpose of the original doctrine. Secondly, in this day and age – of codified laws – no nation can arrogate to itself, a chunk of ocean space, claiming it as its own. The guiding principle in this respect is that propounded by UNCLOS III. It clearly specifies maritime zones entitled to a maritime state; and calls the sea area beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone as the “High Seas” – which in effect is the common heritage of mankind. How then, can lines be drawn over the ocean, claiming open areas or areas conflicting with other states’ Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), as one’s own?

The sea is the most important of our ‘commons’. It enables the transportation of goods and people, and is the primary enabler for driving the global economy. That is why the phrase “freedom of navigation” is invoked so frequently, by all nations – rich and poor – to secure the path to economic progression. If one were to just look at the sea lanes of the Indo-Pacific, one would realize that almost all commerce destined to or from the Western, or North-Eastern Pacific, converges on the Malacca Strait, and 95% of this traffic passes through the South China Sea. It has no alternative. The traffic coming or going in to the Suez Canal, coupled with the energy and other cargo from or to the Persian Gulf, passes through the Malacca Strait. This traffic is carried by almost 60,000 large merchant ships annually. In monetary terms, the amount of trade that passes through the South China Sea annually grosses close to 5.3 Trillion US Dollars[vii]. Over one fourth of this belongs to the United States. A chunk of the balance is shared between China, and Japan. Even India uses these sea lanes for passage of 55% of its trade – amounting to 400 Billion US Dollars. In such a scenario, it would be evident, that any threat, or intimidation on ‘jurisdiction’ of common space, is bound to raise the cost of peace in multiple ways, in the region. First amongst the victims is the expenditure on Defence. As a mirror image of the situation during the cold war, as well as the one prevailing after the first Gulf War, most countries in the region have started building their defences in all three dimensions. This is a huge burden in economic terms, as well as on developmental resources within the affected countries in the region. The second victim is an alteration in the alliance system of the world. If the US and Japan had a security treaty signed in 1951, both countries are now revisiting its contents – to reinforce Japan’s interests, and integrity. The issue of “collective security” is on the table, unlike Japanese views just a decade ago. And in quick time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ensured ‘reinterpretation’ of Article 9 through a Cabinet decision – bypassing any strings attached to Japan’s Parliament, or the need of a referendum[viii]. Japan’s Self Defence Forces will no longer be tethered to restrictive provisions of the post war constitution. That nation will be able to take action against other countries that attack Japan’s sovereignty, or interests. And all this is not just because of the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, it has also stemmed from the threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the threat to curb freedom of air passage through overlapping air defence identification zones (ADIZ), and deliberate intrusion into Japanese waters by PLA(N) submarines. Actions to rewrite security pacts or military assistance are also being contemplated by other stake holders in the South China Sea, like the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

Probable Reasons

One of the primary reasons for China’s assertiveness (and eagerness) to lay claims to such a large portion of the South China Sea through the Nine Dash Line is the attractive riches within the South China Sea. Amongst all the mineral resources, oil and gas are thought to be the most lucrative – because of their assessed quantity. Three years ago, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), published data claiming almost 125 Billion Barrels of oil, and 500 trillion cubic feet of gas as probable reserves in the South China Sea. Even if these estimates are inflated, and not truly “probable”, the US’ Energy Information Agency (EIA) has estimated that this water body contains approximately 11 Billion Barrels of oil, and 190 Trillion cubic feet of natural gas in undiscovered reserves[ix]. These numbers represent both proved and probable reserves. Due to prevailing disputes and under-exploration in contested areas, however, it has been difficult to determine the actual amount of reserves in the entire sea. EIA’s estimates can therefore be easily considered ‘conservative’ on possibilities. The untapped energy in this sea is what is keenly eyed by China, whose consumption-demand growth curve is becoming steeper by the day. The second reason is the fish/sea food resources in the South China Sea. The impressive harvest (catch figure) of 8 Million tons per annum which account for 10% of the world catch[x], itself reveals a conspicuous reason behind China’s craving for including most of this sea within ‘dashes’. Amongst all littorals of the South China Sea, sea food accounts for over 25% of the essential protein intake. In China’s case, it is ‘volumes’ (due to population density), instead of just percentages, that the country worries about.

Apart from these two ingredients of material necessity, it is also apparent that China views the entire region of the South China Sea as a lucrative domain from the point of view of strategic heft, and therefore wishes to leave no stone unturned in claiming the sea itself (no matter how ludicrous the claim over “common” waters).

Alfred Thayer Mahan – the great naval strategist, and author – emphasized that national greatness could come only to nations that have a connection with the sea, and correctly predicted that sea powers were absorbed in the commercial use of the sea in peace time, and control of the seas in war. That theory rings in a feeling of its application in reverse – when one looks at the South China Sea’s Nine Dash Line. One wonders if old philosophies are being applied – only to thrust down “greatness” through proclamation of ownership of a large chunk of the “free seas”! And as Hans Morgenthau had remarked in his seminal work, Politics Among Nations, “the realist believes that Politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature.”[xi] After all, it has been a proven fact that nations behave somewhat like human beings when it comes to lust, and international relations.

And What Does International Law Say?

International Law or the Law of nations is the name for the body of customary and conventional rules which are considered legally binding by civilized states in their intercourse, with each other. As a set of rules, International Law has existed (at least) since the Middle Ages. And it owes its existence, as a systematized body of rules to the Dutch Jurist and statesman Hugo Grotius, whose work “De Jure Belli ac paci libri III” in 1625 became the foundation of all development on International Law[xii].

International Maritime Law – in particular that branch which deals with the Law of the Sea – is a much more recent phenomenon, and was comprehensively codified only in the later part of the last century, through the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS III). By happy coincidence, though, much credit for its founding principle on the “Free Seas” – goes once again to the same author, Hugo Grotius!

The Law of the Sea is very clear on jurisdiction of sea space. Since UNCOS III, the entitlement of maritime zones has been very clearly defined. Other than a Territorial Sea, a Contiguous Zone, and an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the law does not provide for any ocean space as an entitlement to a coastal state. This goes without exception, and forbids any area of the high seas to be arrogated to any country. One of the guiding principles of International Law has been that territory has meaning and ownership only on land. Unlike land, the ocean is not “territorial”, and therefore cannot be claimed as one’s own possession.

The other aspect of law (post UNCLOS III) is, that no matter how old one’s claims over ocean space on the map, legitimate jurisdictions entitled through maritime zones of other states cannot be overlapped by one’s own. Acts of unilateral carving of zones over others’ zones, would be considered illegal, and without regard to civilized behavior. So, lines drawn over the sea have no basis in law, and unilateral usurping of others’ maritime zones must not be accepted by the international community. Therefore, the “Nine (or Ten!) Dash Line” has no legitimacy and must not be allowed to represent ownership of water, or jurisdiction by a state.

Entitlement of Sovereignty

Lassa Openheimer, the teacher of modern International Law, once said about sovereignty: “There exists perhaps no conception the meaning of which is more controversial than that of sovereignty. It is an indisputable fact that this conception, from the moment it was introduced into political science until the present day, has never had a meaning which was universally agreed upon.” China seems to be taking undue advantage of that quote. It forgets that sovereignty stems from territorial right that must be acquired through legitimate ownership, and not forceful acquisition.

A few facts of applicable international conventions need reiterating here. First, it must be remembered that maritime jurisdiction can only derive from land features, and not by drawing lines over sea areas. Secondly, rocks that cannot sustain human life or economic activity of their own do not enjoy the privilege of an EEZ, or a Continental Shelf.

In the case of the Paracels or the Spratlys, even if China had laid claim to just the larger of the islands (which permit an EEZ in accordance with Article 121 of UNCLOS), it still cannot unilaterally carry out exploration or exploitation activity. This is because it is an accepted practice for maritime areas in dispute, to be kept untouched till resolution through agreement or arbitration. The whole idea is to avoid tension, disharmony, and use of force. China’s actions in unilaterally moving a deep sea oil rig to assert its claims on the Paracels, was a bad example of becoming a ‘law unto itself’. The world knows that China had evicted a Vietnamese contingent from the Paracels, by use of force in 1974. The Vietnamese have claimed these islands since the 17th Century. Vietnam did not withdraw its claims after the 1974 incident. Therefore, the status of these islands continues to be “in dispute”. Moreover, there are other countries that have laid claims to the Paracels. This situation only complicates the ownership tangle, and was bound to provoke protests the way they happened in Vietnam, as well as the stand-off at sea. China had, however miscalculated the initial move, thinking that Vietnam will at best acquiesce to the changed situation; and in the worst case post only diplomatic protests. It had perhaps forgotten that nations react as per their ‘personalities’ which are analogical to human personalities. Over the last decade, China has been over-confident in its posturing. It feels that the world fears its economic prowess and military might, and therefore it can do what (and how) it wants to act! But in less than five weeks it had to retract the rig under the garb of impending bad weather – through upcoming typhoons. This was seen by the world as a face saving mechanism. Everyone knows that the region gets affected by typhoons between May and December, and the peak season is July and August!

In the matter of international relations, it takes a lot to make and keep good relations; but requires only a small, silly move to damage trust and friendship. Relations between Vietnam and China were generally good over the year gone by. But China’s announcement, and subsequent deployment of the “HYSY 981” oil rig approximately 20 miles South of Triton Island in the Paracels in May this year, reignited old tensions, and has made way for an uneasy calm. This altered state of geopolitics has furthered tension and worry amongst other claimants as well.

Everyone understands that China is acting in this manner – only on the basis of over confidence stemming from its economic and military might. In other words, the balance of power has lost equilibrium in a region that claims to host half of global shipping, a majority of industrial raw materials and energy inputs, and many of the promising economies. Acts of acquisition (of rights) must follow legitimate ownership. Otherwise, disputes give rise to disharmony, protest, and unseemly public spat. These become recipe for spoilt relations, changing the fabric of peaceful living.


In the rhetoric of International Politics, attempts to discipline the mighty amongst “sea lawyers” are sometimes dictated by realpolitik when nations that project power on the back of their successful economies and powerful militaries tend to call the shots. Is it really true that “might is right”? Well, these are perceptional issues. The actor which intimidates others, based on its country/population size, and economic/military prowess, assumes that all others will acquiesce to, and accept the boot.

The geopolitical landscape of the South China Sea has for sure changed – for the worse – over the last five years. If China continues to be assertive on its claims, and aggressive in its posture, tensions amongst its neighbours will lead to further disharmony, fear, and frustration. Fear is already rife that China is on its way to becoming a revisionist power. That is why it has embarked upon a campaign to modernize and expand its force levels. Signs of a fresh arms race are becoming conspicuous. It will also lead to more nations seeking legal recourse. It will lead to a reorientation of alliances, and a greater urge for ‘unhealthy’ competition at sea. In sum, the balance of power has been disturbed. To invite equilibrium, all other affected states are bound to be happy with the induction of US forces – aligned with the rebalancing to the East.

In such a scenario, the best concurrent course of action for all actors would be to seek redressal through the International Court of Justice, or the Permanent Court of Arbitration, since all avenues of multi-lateral resolution within claimants have been unsuccessful. There is also need for the international community to raise their voice against threats to freedom of the seas, and to the world economy.

[i] UNCTAD sources

[ii] BBC Asia Q&A downloaded at, on 23 Oct 2014.

[iii] ibid

[iv] Hong Thao Nguyen, “Vietnam’s Position on the Sovereignty over the Paracels & the Spratlys: Its Maritime Claims”, V JEAIL (2012), downloaded from /abstract=2123861, on 30 OCT 2014.

[v] ibid

[vi] Island of Palmas Case (Neth. v. U.S.), 2 R.I.A.A. 845-846 (Perm. Ct. Arb. 1928); Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain, 2001 I.C.J. (Mar. 16), cf. Separate Opinion of Torres Bernardez, 73 & 76, available at (last visited on Mar. 30, 2012).

[vii] From UNCTAD data.

[viii] Norihoro Kato, “Japan’s Break with Peace”, NY Times Op-ed, July 16, 2014.

[ix] US Energy Information Agency South China sea Report (last updated Feb 07, 2013)


[x] Timo Kivimaki “War or Peace in the South China Sea” Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2002; pp43

[xi] Politics Among Nations, 4th ed., 1967, p ix

[xii] Openheim L “International Law, a Treatise” Longmans, Green, and Co. 1905

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Fishermen are silhouetted against the early morning light as they return from fishing in Karachi

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Tensions rapidly escalating around South China Sea – by Joel Brinkley | Politico

24 February 2013

by Joel Brinkley  | Politico - China’s assertion that almost all of the South China Sea and adjacent waters are part of its territory seems to be growing more dangerous with each passing week.

Fishermen are silhouetted against the early morning light as they return from fishing in Karachi's China Creek. | Reuters

China’s territorial assertions have alienated almost everyone in its neighborhood. | Reuters

China and Japan are scrambling fighter jets in their faceoff over disputed islands. Last month, China “painted” a Japanese military helicopter and destroyer with weapons-lock radar — bringing harsh criticism from Japanese and American military officials.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”

But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.

“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.

Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.

But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.

So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)

Visiting the region last fall, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Asian states to draw up a code of conduct for the nations bordering the South China Sea but added: “The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims or land features” — even though the farthest point China now claims is more than 1,200 miles away from the Chinese mainland. (One reason the U.S. may be deferring is that Congress never ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty. Republicans blocked ratification once again last year. )

That’s just fine with Beijing. “China doesn’t want the U.S. involved in any way,” said Jose Cuisia Jr., the Philippines’ ambassador to the United States, at a Stanford University conference.

The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and several other states are responding angrily to their own territorial disputes with China, so that a common refrain among analysts and observers has become “one stupid mistake could start a war.” Already, Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, has told the state’s military to “prepare for war.”

But as this crisis continues and worsens month after month, the one player seldom heard from is the United States. And China is making it plain that Beijing is little worried about America.

“From a Chinese perspective, 2013 appears to bear similarities to 1913,” Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, the Foreign Ministry’s official think tank, said last month at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong.

One century ago “marked the rise of the West,” he intoned. But today, “the opposite is happening with money, power and influence flowing away from America and the West into Asia.

“It’s déjà vu all over again” — except in reverse, he said.

Ruan, like many other Chinese, also blames the United States military’s “pivot” to Asia for stirring trouble in the region. But in fact, China’s aggressive expansionism began even before that — born of two domestic political needs.

Xia Yeliang, an economics professor at Peking University, noted in an interview that a few years ago some in the military were growing restless and wanted to start some kind of military conflict with Japan, China’s longtime adversary, to regain their relevance. President Hu Jintao was unwilling to go along with that.

But as China’s social and economic situation continued to deteriorate, Xia and others said, in the spring of 2009 another opportunity arose for re-establishing military relevance — while also distracting disgruntled Chinese with a new foreign conflict. That’s when most nations had to file papers with the United Nations stating their offshore jurisdictions as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Much earlier, in 1946, pushed by the West to clarify its maritime position, the Republic of China had issued an official map showing its claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. Few paid attention then because a few years later the Chinese Communist Party defeated the nationalist Kuomintang and seized control of the country.

But in 2009, when it came time for each nation to give the United Nations documentation of its claim to maritime territory, the Chinese government officially submitted that 1946 map. Since then, it has repeatedly asserted that nearly the entire sea and adjacent waters are “an inherent part of Chinese territory.”

“This was the first time China had brought this up since 1946,” Yann-huei Song, a research fellow at the Institute of European and American studies in Taipei, Taiwan, said in an interview.

So China’s claim that U.S. provocation is responsible for the South China Sea dispute is wrong. President Barack Obama didn’t first raise his notion of the pivot from the Middle East to Asia until late in 2011. And since then, the State Department has repeatedly said it would not take sides in the debate — even after China changed the map of its territory printed in Chinese passports to include 80 percent of the South China Sea. (Vietnam refuses to stamp those new passports. Instead, it stamps a piece of paper and inserts that into the passport.)


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The South China Sea Is The Future Of Conflict – by Robert Kaplan | The CNAS

15 August 2011

by Robert Kaplan | The CNAS — Europe is a landscape; East Asia a seascape. Therein lies a crucial difference between the 20th and 21st centuries. The most contested areas of the globe in the last century lay on dry land in Europe, particularly in the flat expanse that rendered the eastern and western borders of Germany artificial and exposed to the inexorable march of armies. But over the span of the decades, the demographic and economic axis of the Earth has shifted measurably to the opposite end of Eurasia, where the spaces between major population centers are overwhelmingly maritime. 

Because of the way geography illuminates and sets priorities, these physical contours of East Asia augur a naval century — naval being defined here in the broad sense to include both sea and air battle formations now that they have become increasingly inextricable. Why? China, which, especially now that its land borders are more secure than at any time since the height of the Qing dynasty at the end of the 18th century, is engaged in an undeniable naval expansion. It is through sea power that China will psychologically erase two centuries of foreign transgressions on its territory — forcing every country around it to react.

Military engagements on land and at sea are vastly different, with major implications for the grand strategies needed to win — or avoid — them. Those on land enmesh civilian populations, in effect making human rights a signal element of war studies. Those at sea approach conflict as a clinical and technocratic affair, in effect reducing war to math, in marked contrast with the intellectual battles that helped define previous conflicts.

World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the ideology responsible for the murder of tens of millions of noncombatants. The Cold War was a moral struggle against communism, an equally oppressive ideology by which the vast territories captured by the Red Army were ruled. The immediate post-Cold War period became a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans and Central Africa, two places where ground warfare and crimes against humanity could not be separated. More recently, a moral struggle against radical Islam has drawn the United States deep into the mountainous confines of Afghanistan, where the humane treatment of millions of civilians is critical to the war’s success. In all these efforts, war and foreign policy have become subjects not only for soldiers and diplomats, but for humanists and intellectuals. Indeed, counterinsurgency represents a culmination of sorts of the union between uniformed officers and human rights experts. This is the upshot of ground war evolving into total war in the modern age.

East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception. The Western Pacific will return military affairs to the narrow realm of defense experts. This is not merely because we are dealing with a naval realm, in which civilians are not present. It is also because of the nature of the states themselves in East Asia, which, like China, may be strongly authoritarian but in most cases are not tyrannical or deeply inhumane.

The struggle for primacy in the Western Pacific will not necessarily involve combat; much of what takes place will happen quietly and over the horizon in blank sea space, at a glacial tempo befitting the slow, steady accommodation to superior economic and military power that states have made throughout history. War is far from inevitable even if competition is a given. And if China and the United States manage the coming handoff successfully, Asia, and the world, will be a more secure, prosperous place. What could be more moral than that? Remember: It is realism in the service of the national interest — whose goal is the avoidance of war — that has saved lives over the span of history far more than humanitarian interventionism.

EAST ASIA IS A VAST, YAWNING EXPANSE stretching nearly from the Arctic to Antarctic — from the Kuril Islands southward to New Zealand — and characterized by a shattered array of isolated coastlines and far-flung archipelagos. Even accounting for how dramatically technology has compressed distance, the sea itself still acts as a barrier to aggression, at least to a degree that dry land does not. The sea, unlike land, creates clearly defined borders, giving it the potential to reduce conflict. Then there is speed to consider. Even the fastest warships travel comparatively slowly, 35 knots, say, reducing the chance of miscalculations and giving diplomats more hours — days, even — to reconsider decisions. Navies and air forces simply do not occupy territory the way that armies do. It is because of the seas around East Asia — the center of global manufacturing as well as rising military purchases — that the 21st century has a better chance than the 20th of avoiding great military conflagrations.

Of course, East Asia saw great military conflagrations in the 20th century, which the seas did not prevent: the Russo-Japanese War; the almost half-century of civil war in China that came with the slow collapse of the Qing dynasty; the various conquests of imperial Japan, followed by World War II in the Pacific; the Korean War; the wars in Cambodia and Laos; and the two in Vietnam involving the French and the Americans. The fact that the geography of East Asia is primarily maritime had little impact on such wars, which at their core were conflicts of national consolidation or liberation. But that age for the most part lies behind us. East Asian militaries, rather than focusing inward with low-tech armies, are focusing outward with high-tech navies and air forces.

As for the comparison between China today and Germany on the eve of World War I that many make, it is flawed: Whereas Germany was primarily a land power, owing to the geography of Europe, China will be primarily a naval power, owing to the geography of East Asia.

East Asia can be divided into two general areas: Northeast Asia, dominated by the Korean Peninsula, and Southeast Asia, dominated by the South China Sea. Northeast Asia pivots on the destiny of North Korea, an isolated, totalitarian state with dim prospects in a world governed by capitalism and electronic communication. Were North Korea to implode, Chinese, U.S., and South Korean ground forces might meet up on the peninsula’s northern half in the mother of all humanitarian interventions, even as they carve out spheres of influence for themselves. Naval issues would be secondary. But an eventual reunification of Korea would soon bring naval issues to the fore, with a Greater Korea, China, and Japan in delicate equipoise, separated by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow and Bohai seas. Yet because North Korea still exists, the Cold War phase of Northeast Asian history is not entirely over, and land power may well come to dominate the news there before sea power will.

Southeast Asia, by contrast, is already deep into the post-Cold War phase of history. Vietnam, which dominates the western shore of the South China Sea, is a capitalist juggernaut despite its political system, seeking closer military ties to the United States. China, consolidated as a dynastic state by Mao Zedong after decades of chaos and made into the world’s most dynamic economy by the liberalizations of Deng Xiaoping, is pressing outward with its navy to what it calls the “first island chain” in the Western Pacific. The Muslim behemoth of Indonesia, having endured and finally ended decades of military rule, is poised to emerge as a second India: a vibrant and stable democracy with the potential to project power by way of its growing economy. Singapore and Malaysia are also surging forward economically, in devotion to the city-state-cum-trading-state model and through varying blends of democracy and authoritarianism. The composite picture is of a cluster of states, which, with problems of domestic legitimacy and state-building behind them, are ready to advance their perceived territorial rights beyond their own shores. This outward collective push is located in the demographic cockpit of the globe, for it is in Southeast Asia, with its 615 million people, where China’s 1.3 billion people converge with the Indian subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. And the geographical meeting place of these states, and their militaries, is maritime: the South China Sea.

The South China Sea joins the Southeast Asian states with the Western Pacific, functioning as the throat of global sea routes. Here is the center of maritime Eurasia, punctuated by the straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar. More than half the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic. The oil transported through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is more than six times the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and 17 times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Roughly two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy supplies, and about 80 percent of China’s crude-oil imports come through the South China Sea. What’s more, the South China Sea has proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels and an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, a potentially huge bounty.

It is not only location and energy reserves that promise to give the South China Sea critical geostrategic importance, but also the coldblooded territorial disputes that have long surrounded these waters. Several disputes concern the Spratly Islands, a mini-archipelago in the South China Sea’s southeastern part. Vietnam, Taiwan, and China each claim all or most of the South China Sea, as well as all of the Spratly and Paracel island groups. In particular, Beijing asserts a historical line: It lays claim to the heart of the South China Sea in a grand loop (widely known as the “cow’s tongue”) from China’s Hainan Island at the South China Sea’s northern end all the way south 1,200 miles to near Singapore and Malaysia.

The result is that all nine states that touch the South China Sea are more or less arrayed against China and therefore dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military support. These conflicting claims are likely to become even more acute as Asia’s spiraling energy demands — energy consumption is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half that growth — make the South China Sea the ever more central guarantor of the region’s economic strength. Already, the South China Sea has increasingly become an armed camp, as the claimants build up and modernize their navies, even as the scramble for islands and reefs in recent decades is mostly over. China has so far confiscated 12 geographical features, Taiwan one, Vietnam 25, the Philippines eight, and Malaysia five.

China’s very geography orients it in the direction of the South China Sea. China looks south toward a basin of water formed, in clockwise direction, by Taiwan, the Philippines, the island of Borneo split between Malaysia and Indonesia (as well as tiny Brunei), the Malay Peninsula divided between Malaysia and Thailand, and the long snaking coastline of Vietnam: weak states all, compared with China. Like the Caribbean Sea, punctuated as it is by small island states and enveloped by a continental-sized United States, the South China Sea is an obvious arena for the projection of Chinese power.

Indeed, China’s position here is in many ways akin to America’s position vis-à-vis the similar-sized Caribbean in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The United States recognized the presence and claims of European powers in the Caribbean, but sought to dominate the region nevertheless. It was the 1898 Spanish-American War and the digging of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914 that signified the United States’ arrival as a world power. Domination of the greater Caribbean Basin, moreover, gave the United States effective control of the Western Hemisphere, which allowed it to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. And today China finds itself in a similar situation in the South China Sea, an antechamber of the Indian Ocean, where China also desires a naval presence to protect its Middle Eastern energy supplies.

Yet something deeper and more emotional than geography propels China forward into the South China Sea and out into the Pacific: that is, China’s own partial breakup by the Western powers in the relatively recent past, after having been for millennia a great power and world civilization.

In the 19th century, as the Qing dynasty became the sick man of East Asia, China lost much of its territory to Britain, France, Japan, and Russia. In the 20th century came the bloody Japanese takeovers of the Shandong Peninsula and Manchuria. This all came atop the humiliations forced on China by the extraterritoriality agreements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whereby Western countries wrested control of parts of Chinese cities — the so-called “treaty ports.” By 1938, as Yale University historian Jonathan D. Spence tells us in The Search for Modern China, because of these depredations as well as the Chinese Civil War, there was even a latent fear that “China wasabout to be dismembered, that it would cease to exist as a nation, and that the four thousand years of its recorded history would come to a jolting end.” China’s urge for expansion is a declaration that it never again intends to let foreigners take advantage of it.

JUST AS GERMAN SOIL constituted the military front line of the Cold War, the waters of the South China Sea may constitute the military front line of the coming decades. As China’s navy becomes stronger and as China’s claim on the South China Sea contradicts those of other littoral states, these other states will be forced to further develop their naval capacities. They will also balance against China by relying increasingly on the U.S. Navy, whose strength has probably peaked in relative terms, even as it must divert considerable resources to the Middle East. Worldwide multipolarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics, but the South China Sea could show us what multipolarity in a military sense actually looks like.

There is nothing romantic about this new front, void as it is of moral struggles. In naval conflicts, unless there is shelling onshore, there are no victims per se; nor is there a philosophical enemy to confront. Nothing on the scale of ethnic cleansing is likely to occur in this new central theater of conflict. China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury. The Chinese regime demonstrates only a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. Instead of fascism or militarism, China, along with other states in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, certainly, but not one that since the mid-19th century has been attractive to intellectuals. And even if China does become more democratic, its nationalism is likely only to increase, as even a casual survey of the views of its relatively freewheeling netizens makes clear.

We often think of nationalism as a reactionary sentiment, a relic of the 19th century. Yet it is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so. That nationalism is leading unapologetically to the growth of militaries in the region — navies and air forces especially — to defend sovereignty and make claims for disputed natural resources. There is no philosophical allure here. It is all about the cold logic of the balance of power. To the degree that unsentimental realism, which is allied with nationalism, has a geographical home, it is the South China Sea.

Whatever moral drama does occur in East Asia will thus take the form of austere power politics of the sort that leaves many intellectuals and journalists numb. As Thucydides put it so memorably in his telling of the ancient Athenians’ subjugation of the island of Melos, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” In the 21st-century retelling, with China in Athens’s role as the preeminent regional sea power, the weak will still submit — but that’s it. This will be China’s undeclared strategy, and the smaller countries of Southeast Asia may well bandwagon with the United States to avoid the Melians’ fate. But slaughter there will be not.

The South China Sea presages a different form of conflict than the ones to which we have become accustomed. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have been traumatized by massive, conventional land engagements on the one hand, and dirty, irregular small wars on the other. Because both kinds of war produced massive civilian casualties, war has been a subject for humanists as well as generals. But in the future we just might see a purer form of conflict, limited to the naval realm. This is a positive scenario. Conflict cannot be eliminated from the human condition altogether. A theme in Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy is that conflict, properly controlled, is more likely than rigid stability to lead to human progress. A sea crowded with warships does not contradict an era of great promise for Asia. Insecurity often breeds dynamism.

But can conflict in the South China Sea be properly controlled? My argument thus far presupposes that major warfare will not break out in the area and that instead countries will be content to jockey for position with their warships on the high seas, while making competing claims for natural resources and perhaps even agreeing to a fair distribution of them. But what if China were, against all evidential trends, to invade Taiwan? What if China and Vietnam, whose intense rivalry reaches far back into history, go to war as they did in 1979, with more lethal weaponry this time? For it isn’t just China that is dramatically building its military; Southeast Asian countries are as well. Their defense budgets have increased by about a third in the past decade, even as European defense budgets have declined. Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia have gone up 84 percent, 146 percent, and 722 percent, respectively, since 2000. The spending is on naval and air platforms: surface warships, submarines with advanced missile systems, and long-range fighter jets. Vietnam recently spent $2 billion on six state-of-the-art Kilo-class Russian submarines and $1 billion on Russian fighter jets. Malaysia just opened a submarine base on Borneo. While the United States has been distracted by land wars in the greater Middle East, military power has been quietly shifting from Europe to Asia.

The United States presently guarantees the uneasy status quo in the South China Sea, limiting China’s aggression mainly to its maps and serving as a check on China’s diplomats and navy (though this is not to say that America is pure in its actions and China automatically the villain). What the United States provides to the countries of the South China Sea region is less the fact of its democratic virtue than the fact of its raw muscle. It is the very balance of power between the United States and China that ultimately keeps Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia free, able to play one great power off against the other. And within that space of freedom, regionalism can emerge as a power in its own right, in the form of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Yet, such freedom cannot be taken for granted. For the tense, ongoing standoff between the United States and China — which extends to a complex array of topics from trade to currency reform to cybersecurity to intelligence surveillance — threatens eventually to shift in China’s favor in East Asia, largely due to China’s geographical centrality to the region.

THE MOST COMPREHENSIVE SUMMATION of the new Asian geopolitical landscape has come not from Washington or Beijing, but from Canberra. In a 74-page article published last year, “Power Shift: Australia’s Future Between Washington and Beijing,” Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, describes his country as the quintessential “status quo” power — one that desperately wants the situation in Asia to remain exactly as it is, with China continuing to grow so that Australia can trade more and more with it, while America remains “the strongest power in Asia,” so as to be Australia’s “ultimate protector.” But as White writes, the problem is that both of these things cannot go on. Asia cannot continue to change economically without changing politically and strategically; a Chinese economic behemoth naturally will not be content with American military primacy in Asia.

What does China want? White posits that the Chinese may desire in Asia the kind of new-style empire that the United States engineered in the Western Hemisphere once Washington had secured dominance over the Caribbean Basin (as Beijing hopes it will over the South China Sea). This new-style empire, in White’s words, meant America’s neighbors were “more or less free to run their own countries,” even as Washington insisted that its views be given “full consideration” and take precedence over those of outside powers. The problem with this model is Japan, which would probably not accept Chinese hegemony, however soft. That leaves the Concert of Europe model, in which China, India, Japan, the United States, and perhaps one or two others would sit down at the table of Asian power as equals. But would the United States accept such a modest role, since it has associated Asian prosperity and stability with its own primacy? White suggests that in the face of rising Chinese power, American dominance might henceforth mean instability for Asia.

American dominance is predicated on the notion that because China is authoritarian at home, it will act “unacceptably abroad.” But that may not be so, White argues. China’s conception of itself is that of a benign, non-hegemonic power, one that does not interfere in the domestic philosophies of other states in the way the United States — with its busybody morality — does. Because China sees itself as the Middle Kingdom, its basis of dominance is its own inherent centrality to world history, rather than any system it seeks to export.

In other words, the United States, not China, might be the problem in the future. We may actually care too much about the internal nature of the Chinese regime and seek to limit China’s power abroad because we do not like its domestic policies. Instead, America’s aim in Asia should be balance, not dominance. It is precisely because hard power is still the key to international relations that we must make room for a rising China. The United States need not increase its naval power in the Western Pacific, but it cannot afford to substantially decrease it.

The loss of a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group in the Western Pacific due to budget cuts or a redeployment to the Middle East could cause intense discussions in the region about American decline and the consequent need to make amends and side deals with Beijing. The optimal situation is a U.S. air and naval presence at more or less the current level, even as the United States does all in its power to forge cordial and predictable ties with China. That way America can adjust over time to a Chinese blue-water navy. In international affairs, behind all questions of morality lie questions of power. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans was possible only because the Serbian regime was weak, unlike the Russian regime, which was committing atrocities of a similar scale in Chechnya while the West did nothing. In the Western Pacific in the coming decades, morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability. How else are we to make room for a quasi-authoritarian China as its military expands? The balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West, is often the best safeguard of freedom. That, too, will be a lesson of the South China Sea in the 21st century — another one that idealists do not want to hear.


(Original version is available at The CNAS)

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