China Dominates the Scramble for the South China Sea

Though Vietnam has occupied the greatest number of contested features in the Spratlys, China is clearly winning.

Far from revisiting its assertive posturing in adjacent waters, China is seemingly determined to consolidate its position in the South China Sea at the expense of its smaller neighbors. The latest satellite imagery, released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, indicate extensive Chinese construction activities in highly contested areas, particularly the Spratly Islands, which have been actively claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines.

Though Vietnam has occupied the greatest number of contested features in the Spratlys, China is the most capable, ambitious (and geographically distant) claimant in the area. Given the magnitude of the power asymmetry between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors, China has the wherewithal to unilaterally dictate the tempo and trajectory of maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Despite being a relative late-comer, China has rapidly augmented its position, artificially transforming highly strategic features such as the Fiery Cross Reef, which has been enlarged to eleven times  its original size.

The reef is a formidable military garrison, with up to two hundred Chinese troops stationed there. It is expected to host its own airstrip in the near future, a crucial prelude to what could become a de facto Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. This would complement China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea, paving the way for China to dominate the skies above the entire first chain of islands in the western Pacific.

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Some analysts have argued that China has been simply fortifying its position in features it has taken control of since the latter decades of the 20th century. Therefore, according to these observers, there should be no cause for alarm, since Beijing is supposedly just fortifying rather than expanding its presence in the Spratly chain of islands.

Yet, China has also been reasserting its recent occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, which it forcibly wrested control of after a precarious showdown with the Philippines in mid-2012. The contested feature falls well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), but China has upped the ante by persistently denying access to Filipino fishermen straddling close to the fisheries-resources-rich Scarborough Shoal.

When it comes to territorial disputes, China has not recalibrated its “peripheral diplomacy.” There is little evidence that Xi Jinping is following through on his early-2014 declaration that Beijing is opposed to “hegemonism,” and committed to “peaceful development and safeguarding world peace with all other countries.”

The Scramble in the Pacific

The South China Sea is often likened to the Persian Gulf, a conflict-prone area that represents one of the world’s most critical Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs)—and a massive source of hydrocarbon resources. But the South China Sea happens to be, first and foremost, extremely rich in fisheries resources, a key source of livelihood for tens of millions of people residing in coastal regions of East Asia, and, to a lesser degree, in hydrocarbon resources. This makes the South China Sea arguably an even more economically significant and resource-diverse SLOC than the Persian Gulf.

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Compared to the strategic landscape in the Persian Gulf, the scope and breadth of maritime competition in the South China Sea is far more complicated. In the Persian Gulf, the Iranians represent a solitary revisionist power confronting an armada of American naval forces, backed by a heavily-armed coalition of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The matrix of competition in the South China Sea, in contrast, is more fluid and multi-dimensional, with various regional and extra-regional actors vying for prized resources and/or strategic depth in the area. With the rapid deterioration of marine and fisheries resources in the area, largely thanks to large-scale illegal fishing (mostly by Chinese vessels), the impetus for locking up depleting resources in the South China Sea has reached new heights.