Does China Really Want to Be the South China Sea's Policeman?

Does China Really Want to Be the South China Sea's Policeman?

Uncertainty creates a vicious cycle in Asia's arms race.

A 2015 Chinese publication of geopolitical strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan’s 1890 treatise, The Influence of Seapower upon History, carries an arresting image of an aircraft carrier on its cover. Featured on the cover of a 2007 edition of the same book is presumably a view of the South China Sea, and a yellow banner that asks, “What are the biggest strategic risks facing a rising China?”. With its critical access to the Straits of Malacca and Indian Ocean, the South China Sea is China’s physical and figurative Mahanian gateway for naval expansion and global power.

Mahan’s dictum that the nation that controls the seas holds the upper hand pushes China to seek prestige and profile through maritime supremacy. However, upscaling military capabilities and infrastructure in the South China Sea undercuts China’s grand strategy. Militarization blurs the lines between defense and offense and thrusts China into the costly role of regional policeman. It also casts a long shadow over any regional leadership aspirations and fuels an arms race in Asia that compromises China’s pursuit of world power status.

With China ascendant, the transformation of motley reefs, shoals and ridges into military-grade outposts in the South China Sea highlights what is at stake in Asia’s security calculus. New satellite imagery from a long-term monitoring project, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), reveals that China has installed anti-aircraft guns and emplacements for close-in weapons systems to detect and destroy short-range cruise missile strikes along a southern arc of the South China Sea.

These new additions enhance China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities and are the latest in what has been a steady militarization of the Spratly Islands. In early 2014, Chinese vessels began dredging sand to build the submerged rocks and reefs into artificial islands. China has since built up a total of seven artificial islands in the area, and constructed infrastructure such as barracks, lighthouses, fuel depots, ammunition bunkers and military-grade runways.

The Costs of Carrying a Big Stick

Images of new construction have elicited concern across the Asia-Pacific because militarization has muddied the distinction between defense and offense in the theater of conflict. Although China’s Defense Ministry insisted on its “legitimate…defense and self-defense purposes”, these new facilities and weapons systems enhance the expeditionary capability of the PLA air force and navy and allow China to maintain combat air patrol in addition to routine surveillance over the South China Sea. In pursuing great power status, Beijing risks sending the wrong message about its rise. It’s unclear how much China wants to change “the rules of the game” from being a stakeholder to imposing a new regional order. Does this new order allow for honoring commitments and managing interdependence? Or will policing the region leave room for little else besides self-interests and power politics?

Establishing control in surrounding waters and an air defense identification zone, for example, may give rise to scenarios that render the strict defensive versus offensive demarcation moot. In 2013, China declared its right to monitor and intercept aircraft over the East China Sea surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Japan remained unconvinced that A2/AD strategies were defensive and denounced the move as “unilateral”, “restricting” and “unacceptable.” The United States countered by scrambling fighter jets through the airspace to stress the need for freedom of navigation.

Even Chinese military doctrine according to the Academy of Military Sciences’ authoritative publication, The Science of Military Strategy, obfuscates the defining line. One chapter states that “active defense is also known as offensive defense” because passive defense cannot protect national interests and goals. As a result, it may ultimately matter little whether China’s mounting military capabilities and infrastructure in the South China Sea constitutes defense or offense. China’s refusal to acknowledge the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea ruling against its claims in the South China Sea tarnishes its reputation and gives constituents in the Asia-Pacific pause in discerning what China’s modus operandi as a regional leader would be.

Reluctance in Following China’s Lead

Escalating disputes over islands and territorial waters between an increasingly assertive China and its neighbors is hardly new. However, the AMTI report of growing military construction on artificial islands will take its toll on China’s standing as a leader building institutions of Asia, by Asia, for Asia. Beijing cannot count on its laurels in pioneering efforts to facilitate economic integration and trade cooperation across the Asia-Pacific to weather the aggressive bent its controversial South China Sea strategy has taken.

Promoting the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a multilateral institution serving the needs of low-income countries placed China in good stead as a responsible great power. The roadmaps for the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership also brought goodwill, prestige and respect. China has gone out of its way to emphasize the complementary and need-fulfilling raison d’etre of these initiatives. Less institutionalized but equally important in framing China’s leadership in Asia are the One Belt, One Road initiative and Global Hua Yuan Collaborative Network, both of which improved China’s political influence and global image as a visionary, connective power.

However, the release of the satellite images showing enhanced armament programs on island ramparts in the South China Sea will strain China’s ties with its regional allies and old disputes with neighbors threaten to resurface. In the aftermath of the AMTI report, an air force spokesperson proclaimed that China’s “strategic power should match with its national interests” and that regular high sea drills would continue to “safeguard national sovereignty.” Tilting the strategic balance in the South China Sea has prompted strong reactions from the Philippines, Malaysia and Australia, all of whom reproached China for sowing mistrust and endangering security. Reverberations from the new military installations will have a detrimental impact on China’s diplomatic dexterity and regional leadership designs. Alienating fellow Asian protagonists through heavy-handed development of military assets will undo any efforts to attract followers to the “China model” and stimulate counter-responses that unravel any groundwork laid in achieving regional preeminence.

The Neighborhood Is Armed to the Teeth

China’s accelerating fortifications in the South China Sea may be viewed as part of a broader strategic purpose, particularly protecting sea lanes of communication, transit routes and deployment zones for its second-strike missile submarines. Despite being defensive in posture, China’s military accumulations may have inadvertently caused insecurity to spiral. Asian states are uneasy about the new equipment and structures because they may enable China to limit freedom of navigation in international waters. In fact, shortly after the AMTI publication revealed the new installations, China seized an oceanographic probe operated by a U.S. Navy survey ship within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

Such conflicts that accompany Beijing’s strong-arming on the Spratly Islands encourage regional states to respond and nullify Chinese strategies. It is this action-reaction dynamic that drives a procurement of military assets across Asia that increasingly resembles an arms race. Upwardly revised defense budgets combined with antagonistic political rhetoric indicate that the race is well underway.

Japan’s defense budget has risen for four years straight; Malaysia tapped into a discretionary natural resource fund to establish forward-operating bases at sea; Indonesia has raised its defense spending by almost 10% after its president visited the Natuna Islands whose surrounding waters China lays claim to; and Vietnam commissioned submarines from Russia and frigates from the Netherlands to expand A2/AD capabilities in the contested waters. Might China’s grand strategy objectives not be better served through self-restraint and respect for mutual obligations? China’s campaign to assert sovereignty over the specks of rock in its southern seaboard has created wariness, which will stretch its maritime resources thin and diminish strategic dividends gained in the short term from new weapons systems.

Uncertainty creates a vicious cycle in Asia’s arms race. While regional diplomats continue to formulate a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and regional military chiefs conduct exercises to enforce freedom of movement, access and navigation, the crescendo of investment in military assets and infrastructure is likely to continue unabated in a region steeped in historical rivalries.

As China follows the yellow brick road laid out by past continental powers, its grand strategy tenets will be tested in the crucible of the South China Sea. China’s profile as architect of the “Asia-Pacific dream” will be curtailed as it dodges accusations of oceanic coercion and demagogues its relationships with Asian counterparts. Bellicose militarization in the South China Sea leaves China’s emergence as a global power in flux and raises questions of whether an opportunity for transformation has been missed.

Karyn Wang is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on political hegemony, regional institutions and diplomatic strategies states employ to manage rising powers in East Asia and the Middle East. She has held research portfolios at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, NUS Business School and RSIS Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.

Image: Sailors aboard the Chinese Navy destroyer Qingdao. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/U.S. navy