China’s Art of Strategic Incrementalism in the South China Sea

August 8, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaXi JinpingSouth China SeaStrategyMilitary
Beijing’s aggressive reclamation and militarization of the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in 2014 should have immediately made clear that Chinese objectives were not just about fish, gas, and oil.

The neighboring South East Asian countries of the highly volatile and busiest waterways of the South China Sea (SCS) have overlapping claims of sovereignty. The largest and most powerful of these claimants is China, which asserts that the region within a vaguely defined Nine-dash Line, covering nearly 80 percent of the SCS is, by its historical rights, sovereign Chinese territory. 

This claim was rejected in July 2016 by the international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The court concluded that the Nine-dash Line violates international law, not least the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

While the United States takes no position on the competing claims in the SCS, Washington flatly rejects Beijing’s claim and, for the second time in a month, deployed two Carrier Strike Groups in dual-carrier operations through the contested waters. Punctuating this position is US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who recently announced that China’s claims were “completely unlawful.” Similarly, Australia rejected the Chinese claims and declared at the United Nations in late July that Beijing’s consolidation of the Spratly Islands and the Parcel Islands were “invalid” as they were “inconsistent” with the UNCLOS. 

These actions not only challenge China’s claims, they are escalatory measures to signal that the United States, Australia, and other countries will not back away from the right to freely navigate the SCS. 

The Art of Strategic Incrementalism 

To understand the tensions in the SCS, one needs to see the broader geopolitical struggle that is taking place beyond simply access to the rich fishing grounds and energy reserves. They also have significant impacts on regional and global stability. China’s aggressive reclamation and militarization of the Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands in 2014 should have immediately made clear that Chinese objectives were not just about fish, gas, and oil for the following three reasons: 

  • First, it is true that the competing claims in the SCS is about access to resources. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the SCS accounted for 12 percent of the fish caught globally in 2015. More than 50 percent of fishing vessels in the world are believed to operate in the SCS. By the virtue of sheer size and volume, China’s fishing fleet dominates all others in the region. There are also significant amounts of energy resources within the SCS. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that the SCS contains “approximately 11 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in proved and probable reserves.” Controlling the SCS means controlling the energy resources.  

  • Second, China’s aggressive claims over the SCS would allow China to virtually seal off the body of water by interdicting strategic resources coming through the Malacca Strait. The EIA reports that nearly 40 percent of the trade in global liquefied natural gas and more than 30 percent of the global maritime trade in crude oil transit through the SCS. Chinese sovereignty over the sea would allow Beijing to exercise coercive diplomacy by controlling strategic resource flow with every country in the region from Malaysia to Japan. In a recent move intended to bring the SCS more under its control, China has changed the wording of a shipping regulation identifying the stretch of water between the island of Hainan province and the Paracel Islands as a “coastal” rather than “offshore” navigation area.  

  • Third, the most important issue as it relates to China’s resolve over the SCS is that it is a glimpse into China’s objective of seizing Taiwan and using it as a platform to expel Western influences from the region, much as Japan had envisioned in the 1930s. With military assets already in place in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes, Chinese sovereignty over the SCS would allow the military to establish tactical and operational control as well as the unopposed freedom to maneuver in its approaches to Taiwan. Additionally, it would enable China to address some unfinished business with Japan from its colonial era. As far back as 1951, the Central Intelligence Agency had concluded in a now declassified report that Taiwan was “the last stronghold of the Nationalist regime” and that the Chinese were resolute in “capturing Taiwan in order to complete the conquest of Chinese territory.” 

The incremental militarization of the SCS reflects the thinking of Chinese military sources which conclude that without securing Taiwan, “a large area of water territory and rich reserves of ocean resources will fall into the hands of others” and that “China will forever be locked to the west side of the first chain of islands in the West Pacific,” according to Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College and Joel Wuthnow of the National Defense University. Another Chinese military publication further concluded that “the biggest obstacle to the expansion of our national interests comes from the First and Second Island Chains set up by the United States.” 

In support of these military objectives, China is undergoing an ambitious shipbuilding program not only for a possible invasion of Taiwan but to provide the capability to support power projection far beyond its shores. From the air, Chinese fighters, bombers, intelligence collection, and other aircraft aggressively and relentlessly probe the air defenses of Taiwan and Japan. If there are any doubts about China’s lingering and justifiable historical grievances, then it is likely no accident that China’s first indigenously built aircraft carrier has been named the “Shandong”—a colonial province that was ceded to Japan from the German occupation after World War I. 

Secretary Pompeo’s “New Alliance of Democracies” 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo remarked in a speech on July 23 that “maybe it’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.” The United States is in good company as the United Kingdom, France, and Australia have all transited the SCS in recent years in rejection of China’s claims. Germany, while influenced by its legacy of two world wars, nonetheless sees that as a global trading partner; it needs to play a participatory role in Asian security. As the French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly remarked at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue summit in 2019: “it takes no [Henry] Kissinger to see the building blocks of a global confrontation taking place here in Asia.”

India, while remaining non-aligned, is likely being nudged toward the Western alliance, especially after its recent confrontation with China in Galwan Valley in which at least twenty Indian soldiers were killed. Significantly, India recently held a major exercise off of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelagoes in the Bay of Bengal: the entry point into the critical Malacca Strait. New Delhi is also looking into expediting the reinforcement of military forces in the Andaman and Nicobar Command.

As the Quad—the American-led military alliance with Australia, India, and Japan—kicks off its trilateral exercise in the Philippine Sea and the Indian Ocean, Australia poised to join Exercise Malabar and other Western naval forces making their presence known in the region. The message is crystal clear that China’s assertiveness toward its neighbors is not only destabilizing to the Southeast Asian nations but also becoming a global security concern.

Will the White House Give Way to Autocracy? 

In his recent bombshell memoir The Room Where it Happened, former National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote that President Donald Trump pointed to “the tip of one of his Sharpie [marker’s] and say, ‘this is Taiwan,’ then point to [his desk in the Oval Office] and say, ‘this is China’” to distinguish the size difference between Taiwan and China and to downplay the importance of U.S. commitment to the democratic and strategic ally.  

While the Trump White House has a decided preference for “deals” rather than  “alliances,” Washington will soon find that these deals most likely to fail the security interests of the United States, Asia, and the West—just as Trump’s betrayal of the Kurdish rebels in the Syrian War and the withdrawal of U.S. military from Germany that have strengthened Russia. Given this evidence, it is likely why China would also welcome four more years of the Trump administration.

As China approaches its centennial in 2049, President Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry. Part and parcel of this will mean the unification of the “greater China” and, implicitly, the unopposed control of the SCS. However, China should measure its historical grievances and ideological priorities against its costs. Beijing cannot have the contradictory desires of peace on the one hand, and retribution on the other. The world was forced to live through two devastating wars in the twentieth century; there is little interest in doing it again. 

Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor, is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University as well as a senior fellow of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei. 

Joey Wang is a defense analyst in the United States.

They are alumni of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The views expressed in this analysis neither represent the official positions of the current or past institutional affiliations nor the respective governments. 

Image: Reuters