The Buzz

China Won’t Back Down in the South China Sea

The findings of the South China Sea Arbitration conducted at The Hague refutes China claim of indisputable sovereignty, and invalidates the ‘nine-dash line’ as a mechanism to delineate that claim—a heavy defeat for China. As expected, China has rejected the ruling. So what’s Beijing’s next likely move?

This dispute is one aspect of a broader Chinese ambition towards rejuvenation under a China Dream and restoration to ‘middle kingdom’ status that would see its neighbors in Southeast Asia relegated to tributary powers. That new Chinese hegemony would challenge US strategic primacy in Asia. The crisis feeds into a Chinese narrative of a ‘Century of Humiliation’ promoted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to sustain its political legitimacy. So suddenly backing down on a critical Chinese interest would be an intolerable blow to CCP legitimacy, and in particular the reputation of Xi Jinping.

China will use soft power and diplomacy to counter global responses against Beijing’s repudiation of a rules-based international order, but its steady challenge to that order won’t waver, and Beijing won’t back down in the South China Sea.

From a military perspective, Chinese control of the South China Sea allows the extension of a PLA anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubble’ (herehere, and here) further to the south and east. That allows the PLA to fully employ more advanced submarine and naval surface combatants, longer-ranged strike warfare, and more sophisticated air power to delay or deter US military intervention in any future regional crisis, such as over Taiwan, and support People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) power projection into the Indian Ocean. The South China Sea is also a bastion for China’s Jin class SSBNs and the follow-on Type 096 Tang class SSBNs, particularly in the in the China Sea Basin south of China’s main SSBN base at Hainan Island, which has a maximum depth of 6,000 metres.

Beijing has already made it extremely difficult for ASEAN to reach a unified position on the rival claims to the South China Sea and is sure to continue to coerce the organisation, particularly at the ASEAN Foreign Minister’s meeting in Laos from the 21–26 July. It’ll try to do a deal with unpredictable Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte, who has suggested bilateral negotiations with Beijing. It may walk away from long-running negotiations over a multilateral ‘Code of Conduct’. It’ll continue to use both diplomatic pressure and bilateral economic inducements to buy off individual states.