The South China Sea: Why Is It Important, What Is The South China Sea Issue, And Is China Really Expanding Its Territory To The South?


 

Introduction

On the 15 December 2016, a Chinese naval ship captured a US underwater drone near the disputed islands in the South China Sea, which is roughly 50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay in the Philippines. The action of capturing the drone has triggered the US diplomatic protest as the Pentagon argued that the drone was ‘‘unlawfully seized.’’ On the 20 December 2016, China’s Defense Ministry claimed that the drone had been returned to the US after “friendly consultations between the Chinese and U.S. sides.’’ While acknowledging receipt of the underwater drone, according to the World Post, the US criticized China for the seizure. The US argued that China’s action of capturing the underwater drone was ‘‘inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea.’’

The issue of the South China Sea has become one of the hottest topics in the contemporary world since 2008. In the aftermath of 2008, China has become more ‘‘assertive’’ in the South China Sea. China has taken actions to build artificial islands in the disputed areas in the South China Sea. Some of the artificial islands, such as the artificial construction based upon the Fiery Cross Reef, can even accommodate military jets.

China’s actions in the South China Sea has, indeed, raised a certain level of concerns among the disputed parties, such as the Vietnam and the US. The US responded to China’s construction activities with the ‘‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’’ and asked countries with likely minds to participate in the operations. The newly elected President of the US, Donald Trump, also claimed during his presidential campaign that he would double the US military personnel in the South China Sea area.

This report intends to provide an overview of the South China Sea issue. Firstly, the report examines the potential strategic, political, and economic values of the South China Sea. It then outlines the competing sovereign claims over the South China Sea with a focus on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) sovereign claim. In the last part, the report aims at examining the issue of whether China is actively expanding its territory into the South China Sea by comparing China’s contemporary developments with the doctrine of geopolitik.

The South China Sea is Important

The South China Sea is valuable for both strategic, political, and economic means. Strategically speaking, the South China Sea encompasses the Malacca Straits and the Strait of Taiwan. Any states that can dominate the South China Sea may also possess the ability to control the Malacca Straits, which are the Straits of significant military and economic values. Economically speaking, the sea lines of the South China Sea carry out roughly one-third of the world’s shipping and the shipments carried out through the water are crucial for regional states’ economies. For instance, around 60 percent of Australia’s exports are traveling through the South China Sea. In this sense, the maintenance of the freedom of navigation is essential for regional states to keep their economic interests. The South China Sea is also believed to hold huge oil and gas reserves beneath its seabed. Although technical difficulties do exist regarding the exploitation of the natural resources underneath the South China Sea, the potential natural resources reserves are essential for regional states to sustain their economic growth. Politically speaking, the South China Sea is important for the current government in China to maintain its legitimacy as the ruling party. To lose the sovereignty over the South China Sea can largely diminish the government’s legitimacy as the nation’s protector.

The Competing Claims over the South China Sea

There are six states or parties that are currently claiming the whole, or the part, of the South China Sea. Among the six states or parties, the PRC, the Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan, and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam claim sovereignty over the whole body of water. Meanwhile, The Republic of the Philippines, the Nation of Brunei, and Malaysia claim parts of the South China Sea, which ranges from the southwest of the ocean to the troubling Spratly Islands.

The PRC’s claims are inherited from the ROC’s claims over the South China Sea. Similarly, both the PRC and the ROC’s sovereign claims over the South China Sea are largely based on China’s historical rights over this body of water. During the period of the Republic of China, the government has managed to exercise sovereign control over the South China Sea by establishing administrative departments, deploying military forces to the islands, and publishing official maps. After WWII, the government of the ROC reclaimed sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands on 29 November 1946 and 15 December 1946, respectively. In February 1948, the Ministry of the Interior of the ROC published an official map that outlined the administrative areas of the ROC. In the maps, the attached map The Islands of the South China Sea (Nan Hai Zhu Dao Wei Zhi Tu) outlined the so-called 11-dash lines and the areas under the ROC’s administrative control over the South China Sea.

The PRC inherited the ROC’s sovereign control over the South China Sea after its establishment in 1949. The PRC has re-published the map, which changed the original 11-dash lines to the contemporary nine-dash lines. The diminishing of two of the dash lines near the Gulf of Tonkin was the result of the temporary healthy bilateral relations between the PRC and Vietnam.

However, the PRC’s 9-dash line claims are problematic. The 9-dash lines, itself, lacks precision for defining the exact areas that are claimed under China’s sovereignty. Indeed, both international and domestic observers in China failed to give a precise explanation of the exact areas that are encompassed with, or around, the 9-dash lines.

In addition, what should be acknowledged is that the South China Sea disputes have long existed with a manner of temporary escalation. According to the PRC, the South China Sea disputes escalated in the 1970s was the result of the findings of the potential natural resource reserves underneath the seabed of the South China Sea. In other words, according to the PRC, other competing states in the region challenged China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea because those states wanted to secure the potential energy supplies. In the current era, the South China Sea issues have become more complex with the involvement of claimants and non-claimants. While the claimants still claim sovereign controls over the body of water, the non-claimants, such as the US, Japan, and Australia may have different interests ranging from the preservation of the freedom of navigation to the prevention of China’s domination of the regional system.

Is China Actively Expanding its Territory into the South China Sea?

China’s assertions over the South China Sea have raised a certain level of concerns among international observers. Scholars started to compare China’s recent activities in the South China Sea with Germany and the Imperial Japan before the WWII under the doctrine of geopolitik.

The doctrine of geopolitik is developed in Germany with a unique view of nation-states and the international system. Geopolitik views states as organs that are struggling for living spaces. According to the theory, states can, and should, actively acquire territories for more living spaces. The doctrine also encompasses a special view of the international system. States who adopted geopolitik often viewed themselves as being mistreated by the international system. In other words, geopolitik argues that states should fight to gain more equal rights or treatments in the international system. To achieve the goals of gaining more living spaces and equal treatments, geopolitik encourages states to expand their military forces as a means to achieve the ends.

Whether China has adopted the doctrine of geopolitik in the South China Sea is wealth discussion. Although China has opened itself to the world market and has undergone a significant economic reform since the 1970s, the PRC, arguably, has never abandoned its concerns over foreign powers. As the only ruling party in the country, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has to maintain a certain level of legitimacy to maintain its position. Other than the impressive economic growth since the 1970s, the CCP has also established itself as the protector of the nation of China. By protecting the nation, the most effective way is to defend the territories against foreign intrusions. In the wider international system, the political system of the PRC is still a question that is blamed by the Western states and the PRC, indeed, has a certain level of domestic tensions regarding the politics. In this sense, the CCP has transferred domestic tensions to territorial disputes around its realm. By defending its claimed territories, the CCP can, on the one hand, blamed foreign countries for potential intrusions of Chinese territories and, on the other hand, strengthened its legitimacy as the protector of China.

However, whether China is expanding its territories into the South China Sea through its military modernization is a different question to discuss. First and foremost, China has not conducted any hostile military operations beyond its 9-dash lines claims. In addition, other than the historical rights, the PRC has provided other evidence that supports its territorial claims over the South China Sea. Oddly enough, although some states in the international system regard China’s claim as being illegal in the South China Sea, some states, such as Vietnam and the US, have had official documents or maps that acknowledged China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea. Vietnam has acknowledged China’s sovereignty over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands on multiple occasions until the 1970s. For example, the 1962 world map published by the Vietnam Army General Staff clarified the Paracel and the Spratly Islands as China’s territories. The 1974 geography textbook, which was published by Vietnam Education Press also acknowledged the Paracel and the Spratly Islands as China’s territories that ‘‘guarded China’s mainland as a great wall.” The 1947 Collier’s World Atlas, which was published in the US, also included the Paracel and the Spratly as parts of China’s territories. In short, the changing stance of some states in the international system has made the issue of the South China Sea more complex, in comparison to the 1970s.

The last important part of the geopolitik is the military expansion. China’s military forces have indeed undergone a substantial process of modernization since the 1990s. However, China’s modernization can be considered from different angles. Professor Hugh White at the strategic and defense study center argued that military modernization can be seen as a natural process that develops with a countries’ economic power. China’s economy has developed impressively since the 1970s and, in this sense, China would have more resources to develop its military power. In addition, the primary goal of China’s military modernization was to deter the US from entering the Taiwan Straits in the first place. The naval modernization happened merely after the current President Xi Jinping took office in China. However, pursuing sea control may not be the best strategy in the South China Sea, either strategically and economically. Strategically speaking, considering the limited space of the water and the time required for training, China’s newly acquired air-craft carriers may not be sufficient for conducting naval operations in the South China Sea. Economically speaking, severely damaging the freedom of navigation doctrine in the South China Sea, is not favorable for China as well, given the fact that China’s economy is also heavily relied on due to the shipping that travels through the very body of water.

What is the South China Sea Issue?

This report regards the South China Sea as a competing theater between China and the US. For China, by effectively defending its sovereign claims in the South China Sea, this can give China an opportunity to generate political, diplomatic, and military pressures to the US and its allies around the ocean. To sustain a substantial military presence on the artificial islands in the South China Sea, China would sustain the military deployments to deter the US from entering the water from its military bases in the Pacific. China’s military presence in the South China Sea may also deter regional states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines’ military actions in seizing natural features in the South China Sea. For the US, losing the South China Sea to China would largely diminish its credibility to its allies, especially the competing states, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. China’s military presence in the South China Sea may also cause a negative consequence for the status of the US as the leader of the Asia-Pacific region, as either China or the US would not be willing to start a potential nuclear war. In short, it is not worthy to start a potential nuclear war over few rocks in the South China Sea, but the potential political and strategic values of the South China Sea have made the issue escalate again.

Conclusion

This report has provided an overview of the South China Sea disputes with a primary focus on the PRC’s stance in the South China Sea. By comparing China’s recent activities with the doctrine of geopolitik, the report argues that China’s primary interests in the South China Sea are not territorial expansion, but it is about competing with the US for regional primacy. Therefore, a deeper step to examine the deeper causes of the South China Sea is required to avoid tensions or crisis escalation over this important body of water.