The South China Sea, notes Bernard Cole, a former US Navy captain who also taught maritime strategy at the National War College, covers four million square kilometers, has significant energy resources, and contains trade arteries through which one-third of the world’s commerce transits. Its geographic location astride the Southeast Asian littoral makes it the maritime gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire sea and conflicting claims by other countries in the region make the South China Sea a geopolitical flashpoint and potential scene of military conflict among regional and global powers.
Cole is one of twelve contributors to Great Powers, Grand Strategies, a new book published by the US Naval Institute Press that offers historical, regional, and global perspectives on the significance of the South China Sea to 21st century international politics.
The other contributors are a mix of retired US naval officers, university professors, think-tank scholars, and Asia experts, including one from Japan and one from Australia.
In separate but complementary essays, Bill Hayton, Ian Forsyth and James Fanell attempt to explain the motivations and strategies behind China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Some contemporary Chinese officials and scholars, including President Xi, claim that China’s sovereignty over the area extends back to “ancient times”, while others date Chinese rule to the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century and the voyages of Admiral Zheng He. Independent historians, Hayton notes, have “demolished” those narratives. “The evidence we have,” Hayton writes,
suggests that the South China Sea was an ungoverned space, a realm of semi-nomadic fisherfolk, sea gypsies, and pirates, until the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Republic of China (ROC) asserted various claims over reefs and islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracels and Spratlys. The ROC occupied and garrisoned Itu Aba in the Spratlys between 1946 and 1950, then reoccupied it six years later.
After the communists gained power on the mainland in October 1949, a new narrative was invented to justify expansion—the “Century of Humiliation” from the Opium War to the communist victory in the civil war was over. China would now reclaim its rightful place as the “middle kingdom”, the center of the world.
Between 1988 and 1995, China occupied seven reefs in the Spratlys, but it only began to transform the reefs into islands capable of supporting military facilities in 2013. In 2009, it had issued the now famous map—U-shaped with nine dashes—to highlight its claim to sovereignty over virtually the entire sea.
While China constructed air and naval facilities on the new islands, it also repeatedly confronted rival claimants, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, at sea, and ignored or flouted international compacts and international law.
It is a time for prudence, wisdom, and careful statecraft from both China and the United States.
Ian Forsyth points out that if one of China’s goals was to lessen US influence in the region, its aggressive moves in the South China Sea have produced the opposite effect. Several smaller powers in the region have out of necessity turned to the US to balance growing Chinese power.
Another consequence of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, notes Leszek Buszynski, has been increased divisions within ASEAN. The individual ASEAN nations have reacted to China’s moves based on their narrow self-interest. Some, like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, have moved closer to the US and Japan. Others, like Laos and Cambodia, have sided with China.
Sean Liedman and Tongfi Kim, respectively, examine the evolution of US strategy in the South China Sea and the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. US grand strategy toward China since the end of World War II, Liedman writes, has shifted from “containment” to “cooperative engagement” to “competition.” With respect to the South China Sea, the US has sought to protect freedom of navigation and overflight by all countries, support its alliances and security commitments with other powers in the region, promote effective regional institutions such as ASEAN, and maintain the liberal international order—and America’s leading role therein—that developed in the wake of the Second World War.
Professor Kim explores the Obama administration’s diplomatic, economic, and military rebalancing toward Asia, which developments in the South China Sea accelerated. He notes that the economic importance of the Asia-Pacific, however, was the driving force behind the rebalance.
For its long-term economic growth, the United States needs to be a part of Asia-Pacific politics. This requires the United States to avoid disillusioning Asia-Pacific states about its strategic engagement, including the South China Sea disputes.
Here, as elsewhere, geopolitics influences the attitudes of other Asia-Pacific states. “[C]ountries that are closer to China and on mainland Asia,” he writes, “are more cautious of embracing the U.S. strategy [whereas] [m]aritime states have more incentives to support the United States . . .”
Professor Takashi Inoguchi and The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda provide an insightful essay on Japan’s approach to the South China Sea. Japan has vital economic and energy security interests in assuring freedom of navigation through the South China Sea and East China Sea, and its overall security is linked to its alliance with the United States. Those are the two lodestars of its policy. China’s aggressive moves have also drawn Japan closer to the Philippines, Vietnam, and other ASEAN countries, which have to some extent set aside “historical issues … in favor of pragmatic cooperation.”
China’s bold actions in the South China Sea have also drawn policy responses from larger powers with interests in the region, including India, Russia, and the European Union (EU). Gordon Chang believes that China’s expansionist policies have forced India to abandon non-alignment and closely cooperate with the United States to contain China. Stephen Blank describes a paradoxical Russian policy that initially sought an independent voice on East Asian issues but has settled for accommodating China, perhaps even as a junior Eurasian partner. Peter Solomon notes that the European Union has significant economic ties to China and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, which gives it a “vital stake in the security of the South China Sea”. But it lacks the military power projection capabilities to support an independent and effective counterweight to China.
The book’s editor, Anders Corr, writes in his introduction that China does not seek a shooting war with the United States. Instead, it is pursuing a “Take and Talk” strategy in the South China Sea that has thus far been successful. China’s immediate goal, he believes, is to construct a “sphere of influence” in East Asia and the Pacific Rim that would rival Japan’s 1938 Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere or the United States’ Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean Sea and Latin America. That is a sobering thought.
The authors featured in this book are not alarmists. None of the essays foresees the likelihood of a great power war between China and the US. But the trend of events, especially in the South China Sea, indicates that we are entering an era where great power competition will overshadow great power engagement. It is a time for prudence, wisdom, and careful statecraft from both China and the United States.