Chinese Activity in the South China Sea

by Antonios J. Bokas

Abstract: China has strong economic and military interests in the South China Sea. However, it demonstrably over-utilizes its military capability against nearby nations to the point of diplomatically and politically isolating itself from them. The US should build its alliances with nearby nations in the Indo-Pacific in order to counter Chinese aggression. US alliances that exploit China’s recklessness could force them to capitulate to accepted norms of the region or shift away from South China Sea dependency in the long-term.


The development of military infrastructure and capability on disputed islands in the South China Sea is a critical element of China’s strategic economic goals. While Chinese military assets in the area could be used for national defense or to retaliate against aggression by adversaries, they are most likely intended for (a) surveillance of the region, (b) signaling military strength to nearby nations, and (c) compelling joint development agreements between China and nearby nations with claims to the South China Sea. China has a phased approach for accomplishing its Belt and Road Initiative, a national program launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 to strengthen China’s international connections (Anwar, 2019). Their approach, as it relates to Asia, consists of

  • a continuous goal (to avoid conflicts with nations that have claims to the South China Sea such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines),
  • a short-term goal (to access fishing and oil resources in the South China Sea), and
  • a long-term goal (to establish westward freight routes through border nations such as Pakistan) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. China’s Phased Approach to the Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative

According to McLaughlin (2020), 80% of international trade travels by sea. Likewise, China obtains about 80% of its energy resources from the Middle East, which are shipped to China through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s way of expanding the number of central nodes in its international shipping network so that it does not need to rely on a single one. For example, China is investing $56 billion in Pakistan to develop an industrialized port in Gwadar in order to avoid the Strait of Malacca, which is influenced by the US (Lazarus, 2019). China will ship goods by freight train from its western border into Pakistan and down to the port.

But without stability in the South China Sea, its long-term shipping plans will likely be undermined. For example, the Spratly Islands off the western coast of the Philippines are prominent fishing areas in the South China Sea, but China enforces a unilateral 14-week fishing ban every year—against the will of Vietnam and the Philippines—with the stated goal of preserving fish stocks (South China Morning Post, 2020).

To combat these unilateral actions, the US conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations, which consist of the US sailing Navy ships through contested areas in the South China Sea—without notice—to signal to all parties that the region is not a Chinese territory (McLaughlin, 2020). However, if China allows its relations with coastal neighbors, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, to diminish, that could open the door to more damaging US intervention in China’s South China Sea shipping routes. However, China does not prioritize these relations and this may be a key to overcoming the Chinese strategy.

A Brief History of the South China Sea Dispute

As outlined in Figure 2 and explained in a Chinese defense white paper from 2019, China claims a large portion of the South China Sea as its own for infrastructure and military development (Cordesman et al., 2019). Yet their claim extends well beyond the Chinese coast—even directly adjacent to Malaysian and Philippine territorial boundaries southeast of Vietnam. China’s claim is also a demonstrable violation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which delineates Exclusive Economic Zones in the South China Sea for every nation concerned (see Figures 3-6 for the Exclusive Economic Zones of each nation compared to China’s territorial claim).

Figure 2. Territorial Boundaries in the South China Sea

Note. Territorial Baselines are colored according to the nation concerned. Adapted from “Maritime Claims of the Indo-Pacific,” by Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (https://amti.csis.org/maritime-claims-map/). © 2020 OpenStreetMap, Leaflet contributors, and CARTO.

As Li and Chen (2016) explain, China has employed a “put aside this issue” tactic in South China Sea claim disputes since 1986 (p. 137). While various disputes were being ignored, however, China expanded its control in the South China Sea. Fittingly, China ruled itself out of “compulsory dispute settlement procedures” via a declaration to the United Nations in 2006—meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines are still “bound by the obligations” in the 1982 pact (pp. 136, 140). While China’s strategy of freeing itself from the physical constraints of the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca is wise, blatantly disregarding the legal owners of South China Sea islands and waters could lead to a failure of their overall plan.

Figure 3. Philippines and China, Exclusive Economic Zones

Note. Exclusive Economic Zones are colored according to the nation concerned. Adapted from “Maritime Claims of the Indo-Pacific,” by Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (https://amti.csis.org/maritime-claims-map/). © 2020 OpenStreetMap, Leaflet contributors, and CARTO.

Figure 4. Malaysia and China, Exclusive Economic Zones

Note. Exclusive Economic Zones are colored according to the nation concerned. Adapted from “Maritime Claims of the Indo-Pacific,” by Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (https://amti.csis.org/maritime-claims-map/). © 2020 OpenStreetMap, Leaflet contributors, and CARTO.

Figure 5. Vietnam and China, Exclusive Economic Zones

Note. Exclusive Economic Zones are colored according to the nation concerned. Adapted from “Maritime Claims of the Indo-Pacific,” by Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (https://amti.csis.org/maritime-claims-map/). © 2020 OpenStreetMap, Leaflet contributors, and CARTO.

Figure 6. Indonesia and China, Exclusive Economic Zones

Note. Exclusive Economic Zones are colored according to the nation concerned. Adapted from “Maritime Claims of the Indo-Pacific,” by Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (https://amti.csis.org/maritime-claims-map/). © 2020 OpenStreetMap, Leaflet contributors, and CARTO.

Warning Signs for China

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2020a), there are 11 billion barrels of proved or provable oil reserves in disputed areas of the South China Sea. These resources are of high interest to China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, which all have oil and gas leasing blocks in the South China Sea (see Figure 7; compare the location of waters claimed by China in Figure 6 to China’s leasing blocks).

Figure 7. Oil and Gas Licensing Blocks in the South China Sea

Note. Overlapping blocks create mixed colors. Significant overlap exists between Vietnamese and Chinese blocks. Minor overlap exists between Malaysian and Chinese blocks. No overlap exists among Vietnamese, Malaysian, Indonesian, or Philippine blocks. Adapted from “Energy Exploration and Development,” by Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 2020, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (https://amti.csis.org/south-china-sea-energy-exploration-and-development/). © 2020 OpenStreetMap, Leaflet contributors; OpenStreetMap contributors; and CARTO.

Along with appropriating sea areas for oil exploration, China has also built numerous bases on small islands, shoals, and reefs (Cordesman et al., 2019). Recently, China has ceased land reclamation efforts and has instead focused on building permanent bases. These small bases typically contain airstrips, berthing, and administrative buildings. On the Paracel Islands (closest to the Chinese mainland and Vietnam), China has one airstrip, 11 helipads, nine harbors, and six weapons emplacements. But on the Spratly Islands (closest to the Philippines and Malaysia) China has three airstrips, 13 helipads, eight harbors, 26 weapons emplacements, and 64 tactical aircraft hangars. China also has four surface-to-air missile sites between both island chains that, combined, range most of the South China Sea.

China is clearly signaling hostile intent by flaunting the various territorial agreements (mainly the 1982 United Nations agreement) and building military infrastructure close to neighbors that it claims to have a spirit of cooperation and understanding with (Li & Chen, 2016).

The Philippines has recently signaled disagreement with China’s activity. In fact, McLaughlin (2020) thinks forceful action against Chinese activity in the South China Sea by the US, India, Australia, and Japan would be justified if the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations simply endorsed such actions. But the Philippines has taken their defensive stance one step further.

On November 17, 2020, the Philippine ambassador to the US emphasized their alliance with the US and said their relationship with China is purely economic (Grossman, 2020). Grossman reports the Philippines is attempting to buy BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, made by India and Russia, which would be their first-ever deterrent capability against China. Grossman also reports that during an official visit to the Philippines on November 23, 2020, the US announced a sale of smart bombs and precision-guided weapons to the Philippines worth $18 million. While there is no evidence of an imminent confrontation in the South China Sea, these are indicators that nearby nations are turning against China.

Economic Consequences of Non-Intervention

Nearby nations need only look to China for what could happen if they do not enforce extant South China Sea agreements. China is home to 16 out of the 20 dirtiest cities in the world and allows pollution to enter rivers near its industrial areas, which harms the health of Chinese citizens (Navarro, 2012). Allowing China to continue to unilaterally regulate activities such as fishing in the South China Sea could not only lead to economic disruption for nearby nations but also to harm of the fish populations in the area.

In addition to fishing resources, oil resources are important to nations like Vietnam, whose barrels per day production is estimated to have peaked at just over 370,000 in 2013 (Li & Chen, 2016). In the South China Sea, areas such as (a) the Gulf of Tonkin (near the coasts of Vietnam and China), (b) Reed Bank (east of the Spratly Islands and close to the Philippine island of Palawan), and (c) the Vanguard Basin (southwest of the Spratly Islands in between Vietnam and Malaysia) are strong candidates for oil exploration according to Li & Chen (2016). Li & Chen estimate the South China Sea may have upwards of 22 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and up to 290 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered gas resources.

Vietnam and China agreed to maritime boundaries for fishing in 2000 and have since been negotiating a joint development arrangement for oil resources near the Gulf of Tonkin. While Vietnam shares important parts of its Exclusive Economic Zone such as the Spratly Islands with China due to geographic proximity (see Figure 5), the Philippines and Malaysia share few, if any, important parts of their Exclusive Economic Zones with China in the South China Sea. If China exploits these resources instead of the Philippines and Malaysia, it could have negative consequences on their energy independence and subsequent economic stability.

Recommendations

While is it not the right of the US to determine what China can do economically, it is the right and duty of the US to protect allies and neutral parties from Chinese authoritarianism. The White House (2017) priorities in the Indo-Pacific are to “maintain free and open seaways, transparent infrastructure financing practices, unimpeded commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes” as well as to defeat any adversary if necessary (p. 47). After recent revelations and video evidence that China has an extensive slave labor population of up to one million Chinese Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, public perception of Chinese industry, working standards, and human rights standards will likely continue to fall (Schifrin & Quran, 2020). Leaders of nations in South China Sea disputes with China are likely to continue to welcome and possibly even invite US intervention in the area.

The center of gravity for China’s operations in the South China Sea—its military infrastructure and capability—simultaneously creates a critical vulnerability to their interests. China does not possess a free-market apparatus to replace its military contributions in its South China Sea operations. Its communist system almost certainly inhibits independent development in the energy sector; therefore, the military may be the only way China can capitalize on vital locations in the South China Sea.

The US should continue its information operation in the South China Sea region to identify instances of Chinese overreach. The US should also increase its efforts to strengthen the Philippines, which hosts five US bases, until it is logistically ready to introduce F-35B aircraft to the region (McLaughlin, 2020). F-35B aircraft are capable of short take-off and vertical landing and have reduced weapon storage capacity (McNab, 2019). These capabilities would allow the aircraft to be operated from smaller vessels, such as amphibious assault ships,and would enable the US to demonstrate superiority over China in the region (McLaughlin, 2020).

In addition to expanding its military technology in the region, the US should increase diplomatic pressure on the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia to oppose Chinese occupation of disputed islands and to allow the US, India, Australia, and Japan to intervene in the matter. China would be unable to oppose such a diverse alliance of local and international powers. If China still refused to roll back its claims and operations in the South China Sea, the alliance could consider implementing sanctions against China—something which McLaughlin (2020) says the US is already considering. Since China is heavily invested in the Belt and Road Initiative and would not want to jeopardize is legal maritime operations in the South China Sea (such as commercial shipping and joint drilling agreements with Vietnam near the Gulf of Tonkin), there is a roughly even chance that China would capitulate and either refocus its effort on its freight initiative with Pakistan or negotiate a withdrawal of its military forces in areas outside the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.

Conclusion

The South China Sea is a historical center of disputes between China and Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. While the latter four nations have tended to resolve their disputes with each other, China has unilaterally declared itself exempt from agreements such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which prescribes Exclusive Economic Zones in the South China Sea for each concerned nation. China has built military infrastructure and capability on many island chains in the South China Sea such as the Paracel and Spratly Islands. Its immediate goal is to maintain surveillance of the region, signal military strength, and eventually compel joint development agreements with other nations. However, China’s history of environmental pollution and inhumane industrial practices—that appear to include forced labor—undermine its passive-aggressive strategy of obtaining control of vital locations in the South China Sea. The US and its allies must continue to push for a peaceful, multi-national resolution to South China Sea disputes, but must be ready and willing to use force in the very unlikely event that China initiates conventional armed conflict.

References

Anwar, A. (2019). Belt and road initiative: What’s in it for China? East-West Center.

Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (n.d.). Energy exploration and development [Map]. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://amti.csis.org/south-china-sea-energy-exploration-and-development/

Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. (n.d.). Maritime claims of the Indo-Pacific [Map]. Retrieved December 12, 2020, from https://amti.csis.org/maritime-claims-map/

Cordesman, A., Burke, A., & Molot, M. (2019). China and the U.S.: Cooperation, competition and/or conflict, 309-335. Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Grossman, D. (2020, December 2). The Philippines is sticking right by America’s side. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2020/12/the-philippines-is-sticking-right-by-americas-side/

Lazarus, E. B. (Director). (2019). China’s new silk road [Film]. Java Films.

Li, J., & Chen, P. (2016). Joint development in the South China Sea: Is the time ripe? In S. Lee, H. E. Lee, L. Bautista and K. Zou (Eds.), Asian yearbook of international law (Vol. 22, pp. 131-158). Brill. doi:10.1163/j.ctvrxk3zz.11

McNab, C. (Ed.). (2019). Key weapons of the world: Tanks, small arms, aircraft & warships from 1860 to present. Amber Books.

McLaughlin, M. (2020). U.S. strategy in the South China Sea. American Security Project.

Navarro, P. (2012). Death by China [Film]. DBC Productions.

Schifrin, N., & Quran L. (2020, December 3). U.S. takes aggressive steps against China for forcing Uighurs into labor [Video]. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/u-s-takes-aggressive-steps-against-china-for-forcing-uyghurs-into-labor

South China Morning Post. (2020, August 18). China ends fishing ban in South China Sea, raising fear of potential conflicts among fishermen [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=29v-w6HZqTc&feature=emb_logo

White House. (2017). National Security Strategy of the United States of America. https://www.trumpwhitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf

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