In August 2023, supply boats from the Philippines broke through a Chinese ship blockade. They were attempting to deliver supplies to Filipino forces stationed on the heavily disputed Spratly Islands, part of the greater South China Sea. A BBC article describes a similar supply mission from only two weeks before, where Chinese ships met the Filipino boats with water cannons. This level of aggression raises alarm, and there is no evidence that tensions will relax. Per an article from AP news, “One Chinese coast guard ship came as close as 46 meters (50 yards)” to the Filipino boats in the recent confrontation, which meant that both sides were dangerously close to crashing. Skirmishes like this are part of the larger conflict over the South China Sea. As outlined in a video published by Al Jazeera, “What’s behind the South China Sea dispute?,” China claims sovereignty over the whole sea, which is challenged by many other countries. For example, various neighboring countries which border onto the South China Sea (Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, etc) have their own territorial claims to the body of water, along with their own related interests. On top of that, there are “billions of dollars in trade routes” in the region, which the United States wants to keep open and free for regional stability. Some responses to this problem are more peaceful, such as signing a non-aggression pact with China (per a different AP News article). More aggressive approaches, pushing against the Chinese claims as the Philippines did with their supply boats, tend to be more risky.
To understand why current responses have not been successful, it helps to examine why the Chinese are so vehement in their territorial claim. First, the most obvious reason is economic: the sea is full of precious resources like oil and gas, and is a heavily profitable area to control. It is one of the busiest areas in the world, with many shipping ports and trade routes populating it. Secondly, there are historical reasons. As another Al Jazeera post noted, in the late 1920s, a British cartographer was tasked with drawing up China’s borders. He placed nine dashed lines around the entirety of the South China Sea, and since then the country has claimed that this alone proves their sovereignty. Finally, as explained in an article from The Times of India, [Chinese] President Xi Jin Ping recently pledged to return China to “past glory” and turn it “‘into an invincible force with wisdom and power.’” This echoes the modern Chinese quest for hegemonic power and revanchism, the only way to make up for perceived past national humiliations that began with British 19th-century colonialism (including the Opium Wars) and culminated in the Japanese invasion of World War II. China thus has deep-seated feelings about the issue, which are at odds with the international consensus, making simple diplomatic or legal solutions difficult. For example, as stated in the BBC article, a UN-backed court in the Hague examined the issue in 2014 and ruled that “China’s claim based on ancient maps is ill-founded.” However, this ruling did not faze the Chinese government, which refused to accept the court’s findings and continued with its regional claims, believing it has a historical imperative to the South China Sea. Add the lucrative possibilities the area could provide, and one can conclude that previous efforts have been unsuccessful because China’s leaders feel too steadfast in their claims. They believe the land has always belonged to them.
Given the above-mentioned realities of the situation, China’s opinions on this vital area appear entrenched. However, by examining why the previously attempted solutions haven’t changed the status quo, we can tackle the issue from different areas and debate which ideas may stick. Inherently, the first and most simple reason–the immense profitability of the area, is only beneficial to China as long as it isn’t a detriment to their wealth. If countries stopped trading with them, and sanctions intensified, it’s possible the Chinese may modify their confrontational policy in the region, because at some point it may just not be worth it. In fact, as an article from PBS News writes, this has already been put into place, to some extent. In early 2021, the United States placed harsh economic sanctions on China because of its movements in the South China Sea. This policy has thus far proven unsuccessful in getting the Chinese to change their movements. However, operating under the theory that the region is still heavily profitable, a possible solution is pushing even harder sanctions onto China in order to tip the balance of its calculus of the costs and benefits of its current policy. On top of this, getting neighboring countries like the Philippines to limit trade with the country more will also provide economic pressure to stop its stranglehold on the South China Sea. At the same time, given the historical factors (the nine dashed lines and China’s wish to regain past glory) and the fact that for China national pride is at stake, it is important to tread carefully and avoid unnecessarily inspiring hostility.
Economic pressure in the South China Sea context can be balanced by trade concessions elsewhere, as a positive incentive for policy change. A combination of “carrots” and “sticks” will show China that the international community does not wish it harm and simply intends to counter its localized aggression. China’s economy has grown at a breakneck pace in recent years, but is showing signs of slowing, at the same time that its government is trying to consolidate power domestically. Hence, the “language” of economic incentives and trade could exert significant influence over Chinese policy, if done with sufficient finesse. What is important to avoid is overtly antagonistic moves that may elicit hostility. In that light, the recent Philippines’ push through the Chinese blockade was not advisable, because China is a large military power in possession of nuclear weapons, so challenging them to fight or not could end disastrously. Perhaps the Philippines supply ships presented a small-scale threat enough that China didn’t deem violence worthy of it, but a larger military challenger may create a large-scale conflict.
In conclusion, China remains stubborn as ever regarding the South China Sea. Previous attempts at swaying their actions have not changed much, leading to the belief that we need something new. Although China presents a significant global threat to U.S. values and interests, it is also deeply entwined economically with the international community and with the economy of the United States. This interdependence points to the need for a policy that is only confrontational when necessary, and otherwise emphasizes our shared fate. Pushing for too radical of a change could be interpreted as an imminent threat to China’s deep interests, all but guaranteeing violence and hostile responses. A balanced and carefully calibrated approach, with enough flexibility to change course as needed, is therefore a preferable policy.
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