What You Need To Know To Understand China's Hegemonic Designs In The South China Sea

What You Need To Know To Understand China's Hegemonic Designs In The South China Sea

This article covers everything you need to know about the South China Sea, the epicenter of geopolitical tensions.

Anjali Krishnan
Anjali Krishnan

The South China Sea is at present the epicenter of geopolitical tensions. The body of water is an arm of the western Pacific Ocean located near South East Asia. Situated thousands of nautical miles away from the U.S., tensions in the region have long sought the administration's attention. Here's a look at why the South China Sea is of strategic importance to us and the world order.

The South China Sea is a marginal sea, meaning it is "a division of an ocean, partially enclosed by islands, archipelagos, or peninsulas, adjacent to or widely open to the open ocean at the surface, and/or bounded by submarine ridges on the seafloor." This stretch of the western Pacific Ocean lies south of China, east and south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, and north of the island of Borneo. The Taiwan Strait connects it with the East China Sea and the Luzon Strait to the Philippine Sea (both are marginal seas of the Pacific Ocean).

There are multiple claimants to these waters - one of the largest seas in the world. Around ten South East Asian countries -Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam - border this body of water. Scores of islands, atolls, shoals, reefs, etc., are located here, though most are uninhabited, and many are permanently submerged. The main features here are the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, Pratas Island, and the Vereker Banks, the Macclesfield Bank, and the Scarborough Shoal.

Geopolitical Significance Of South China Sea

The three fundamental reasons why the control and freedom of the South China Sea is crucial for the world economy are –

  • it's a crucial sea route,
  • it has untapped natural resources, and
  • its marine biodiversity.

One of the busiest sea routes globally, it is estimated that the South China Sea facilitates one-third of all global shipping. The Strait of Malacca is the shortest and most economical passage between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is a crucial trade route for China, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. Trillions of dollars worth of goods pass through the sea route annually.

Besides being one of the busiest sea routes globally, the South China Sea has considerable oil and natural gas reserves. Due to disputed claims, the scales of these reserves have not been fully explored. Though American government experts believe the reserves are 'not considerable,' disputes and claims continue to fly thick.

The South China Sea is said to be home to a third of the world's marine biodiversity. The area is a source of commercial fishing. With many rivers draining into it, it's a sensitive ecosystem that must be preserved and exploited ethically and sustainably.

The Republic of China has regularly claimed 'historic rights' to most of this water body based on the nine-dash line.

What Is The Nine-Dash Line?

China has often fallen back on the 'nine-dash line' to lay claim to about ninety percent of the South China Sea. The U-shaped nine disjointed dots are said to demarcate China's offshore waters.

Its origins date back to the pre-World War II Kuomintang government, according to U.S. scholar and strategist Robert D. Kaplan. Originally an eleven-dash line, there's an interesting story here. Chairman Mao gave up China's claims over the Gulf of Tonkin, a part of the South China Sea, in an expression of communist solidarity with Vietnam making it a nine-dash line.

The dotted (broken) line also apparently gives the Communist regime ownership of the islands, islets, reefs, and shoals that fall within it. It is interesting to note that the nine-dash line encompasses the island of Taiwan.

China has long used the nine-dash line to claim 'historical' and 'sovereign' rights to the South China Sea waters, resources, and territories. Other nations have strongly challenged these claims. China has provided little acceptable evidence or proof for its assertions.

The purported nine-dash line is not recognized by the U.N. or by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which the country is a signatory. Hence, it is in the interest of the international community to protect the maritime commons.

What Is Maritime Commons, And Why Is America Keen On Protecting It?

The recently published Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence states – "In the South China Sea, Beijing will continue to intimidate rival claimants and will use growing numbers of air, naval, and maritime law enforcement platforms to signal to Southeast Asian countries that China has effective control over contested areas."

Despite the threat assessment and the geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea, most Americans are unaware of the issue. TIPP Poll, conducted in late February 2021 by TechnoMetrica, found that 27% of the survey respondents were not familiar with the issue. About a fifth, 19%, approved of China's actions in the region, 37% disapproved, and 17% were unsure about the matter.

The U.S. intends to thwart China's plans to dominate the South China Sea for three main reasons –

  • defend the sea route,
  • defense obligations to nations in the region, and
  • concerns over China's hegemony in the region.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July 2010, "The United States has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia's maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea."

The U.S. has always favored the waters remaining open and accessible for all, though Beijing has been steadying militarizing the South China Sea. America remains committed to protecting the freedom of the seas, thereby ensuring free trade and economic opportunities for countries in the region.

Besides trade, the route is also essential for the movement of naval vessels and troops from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean. The U.S. has repeatedly made clear that it has no intentions to honor China's unsubstantiated excessive maritime claims in the region.

Moreover, the U.S. has long-standing protection treaties with countries in the region. It has formal defense alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia. Besides this, it has vowed to protect Taiwan against aggression from China. In accordance with these alliances, the U.S. Seventh fleet transit the South China Sea, maintaining close contact with countries in the region.

Permitting China to continue its dominance unchecked in the region will skew the world order. Chinese plans in the area are a threat to the rules-based order. The country's blatant disregard for international law and its ambitious plans for territorial expansion poses a danger to the region's stability.

Recent image of Tree Island and its militia outpost (large red building) and pier

Chinese Plans For Expansion

The South China Sea is a significant trade route for China. More than one-fifth of the trade volume along the sea route directly or indirectly benefits China. Close to half of China's trade and most of its oil imports transits through these waters.

Beijing has long believed that it should take steps to protect this crucial trade artery. China is well aware that it is vulnerable to maritime disruptions in the area. The country has put into motion plans to dominate the region to control the trade and transit through the South China Sea waters.

China has bided its time since the Second World War on its plan for the region.  In the latter half of the 1900s, the Communist power was focused on its economic development while playing the role of a good neighbor that is equally interested in the region's development. Their policy of 'peaceful rise' essentially concealed their long-term plans for hegemony.

During this period, China invested heavily in the South East Asian countries and became their top trading partner, making many economically dependent on the rising power. The Communist regime also built up its maritime industry and naval might, which was sorely lacking. It has augmented its military strength with surface vessels, submarines, and missiles.

October 2016: Sansha Maritime Militia in the Paracels prepare to conduct a joint patrol with troops of the Sansha PLA Garrison

Chinese Orchestrated Tense Encounters

Disruptive incidents and skirmishes have become common in these waters over the past many decades. Here are a few instances that the international media have reported.

In the 1970s, China attacked a Vietnamese military outpost in the Paracel Islands and claimed it. Though Vietnam continued to press its claim, Taiwan joined the dispute claiming the entire archipelago. The territory is still vigorously contested, with all three entities engaged in building government administrative buildings, undertaking land reclamation projects, and establishing a military presence on the disputed islands.

China's military took over the Mischief Reef in the 1990s, an area off the Philippine coast. Though China was initially forced to withdraw after drawing criticism from ASEAN, today it is a full-fledged Chinese military base, with sophisticated equipment and runways capable of accommodating fighter jets.

Scarborough Shoals, mostly made up of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks, and reefs, are rich in oil, natural gas, minerals, and marine resources. It has also fallen prey to China's hegemonic plans. The Shoal falls within the Philippines EEZ, but there have been reports of Chinese maritime police providing its fishermen protection to fish in Philippine waters. China has also gone on to lay claim to the area, driving out Philippine fishers.

Beijing sparked a diplomatic row with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia for unilaterally renaming eighty islands and other geographical features in the area. Concerns have been raised about the ownership of the Spratly Islands archipelago, which is thought to possess reserves of natural resources.

Vietnamese fishers have been arrested for allegedly crossing over to Chinese waters. Oil exploration teams have been intimidated. There have been multiple reports of Chinese vessels entering the national waters of South East Asian countries like Taiwan and the Philippines.

International Condemnation

China is growing bolder in its confrontations with its neighbors on the seas, drawing sharp criticism from the international community.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague recently ruled in favor of the Philippines. The small island nation had challenged China's maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. This victory would likely encourage other South East Asian countries to stand up to China and hold it accountable for its encroachments and trespassings.

In a show of intent and might, the U.S. has been conducting regular naval operations in the region. It has been drumming up support against the 'illegal' maritime activities of the Communist power.

Nations have called for stability and peace in the region. No one wants to see the trade route disrupted or to escalate tensions to a scale where the rising power will have to confront the might of the U.S.

Here's to hoping peace prevails!

Raghavan Mayur edited the story.

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