Tensions in the South China Sea: a politico-strategic overview

Aris-Georges MARGHELIS

PhD Candidate, University of Nantes

It’s been a decade since the evolutions in the South China Sea became more and more part of the politico-strategic global agenda. The rise of China challenges the almost complete American naval influence in Asia-Pacific, an area of high strategic importance for numerous actors, both regional and extra-regional. That said, it is worth to notice that China is systematically targeted by most of the western analysts, especially Americans, not only as the aggressor, but as the only aggressor in the region.

Is it really the case?

We need first to understand some Chinese perceptions. China experienced its international downgrading period as an unfortunate anomaly within a process of accomplishment of a national destiny establishing China among the great nations of this world. For Chinese people, this rise is nothing but normal and planned; perceive it as a danger is, therefore, hard to understand. Moreover, China suffers from strategic suffocation in its own regional environment: South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan enjoy a longstanding political and security partnership with the U.S., often at the limits of military subordination, and host on their soil tens of thousands of American soldiers. Lastly, countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia or Vietnam maintain fluctuating but generally cordial relations with Washington. The feeling of aggression and encirclement is strong for China and not totally unfounded; in any case, it explains the strategic anxiety felt by Beijing. After all, one could wonder how the U.S. would react in a similar situation. The Cuban crisis of 1962 pointed out very clearly that the Americans are determined to defend, even at the highest price, the mastery of their strategic and geopolitical environment.

We need further to underline that China not only is not the only aggressor, but not even the main one. In 1996, Vietnam already occupied 24 features in the South China Sea and 48 in 2015. At the same time, China and the Philippines occupy only 8, Malaysia 5, and Taiwan only one but the most significant, Itu Aba (Spratly) island. China seems to have built an airstrip on one of the Spratly islands only in 2015, while all the other claimants except Brunei have proceeded to facility building at least since 20091. Vietnam is by far the most active in terms of island occupation, facility building, and claims, without being, however, accused of violation of international law.

Besides, all the States of the region share the same ambitions. They have generally a similar understanding of the Law of the Sea, something that is obvious when it comes to the establishment of straight baselines2, most of which could eventually be considered as excessive according to a certain understanding of the United nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), despite the fact that the Convention lacks of guidance on how to draw these straight baselines. But this is also obvious when it comes to their understanding of article 121(3) on the ability of certain features to generate or not maritime zones beyond territorial waters, namely an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and a continental shelf. Indeed, it is not unusual that a State considering features under its sovereignty but likely to fall under the provisions art. 121(3) as able to generate zones beyond territorial sea, challenges this same right when it comes to a neighboring country. Therefore, one could ask the following question: if, in the future, an island of the South China Sea that is today subject to multiple claims, was to fall under the recognized sovereignty of any State except China, wouldn’t this State express the same claims in terms of maritime territories as those expressed today by China? This is more than likely. The fundamental difference is that China seems to have the means and resources to support such claims and, due to its size and power, it is perceived as a rival by the U.S. The issue is therefore far more politico-strategic than legal and law here seems more to serve as a communication tool used to legitimate or challenge the claims of each side.

With this in mind, it is not illegitimate to infer that the Chinese power and the danger it represents for the region seems deliberately exaggerated by the U.S., who obviously seek to exert pressure on China by creating a sinophobic atmosphere at a regional and global scale. Not only the issue of the sovereignty over the South China Sea islands is an old one and did not arise during the last 15 years, but China is far from being perceived as the absolute enemy in the region, contrarily to the image conveyed by the U.S. Chinese officials and militaries frequently visit neighboring countries and China is a primordial economic partner for these countries, who did not forget the concrete economic support provided by Beijing during the 1997 financial crisis that had plunged Southeast Asia into an economic chaos, while the U.S. were absent. Moreover, to the great displeasure of Washington, in terms of Law of the Sea, region’s countries do not see positively the liberal vision of UNCLOS as promoted by the U.S. and aiming to establish an almost total freedom of action of foreign naval forces in a third country’s EEZ under the cover of the freedom of navigation principle. Instead, they see the U.S. only as a counterweight to growing Chinese power. Lastly, the Chinese military power is certainly developing rapidly, but remains far behind the American military power. It must be reminded that despite the increase of military spending of Russia and China – the two countries investing the most in their army after the U.S. -, the Americans have a military budget 2,5 times China’s and Russia’s military budgets combined. Particularly in the naval field, but also in intelligence technology, it seems that the Americans will most likely remain without real competitors for many more years.

If we assess the strategic importance of this maritime area for the Americans, it is quite easy to infer that the big loser of an understanding among the countries of the region would be the U.S., who would see its influence shrink even more if the coastal States of the South China Sea succeeded in finding an acceptable modus vivendi respecting the ratio of power and the ambitions of each actor. After all, this scenario should not be seen as unrealistic in itself. We should remind that China and Vietnam, who maintain poor relations and whose rivalry is both very old and fierce, succeeded in negotiating a delimitation agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin in very good terms for both, and even established a joint development area, showing that cooperation and mutual understanding can be on the regional agenda. Consequently, seeking to maintain tension in the area, intensifying the feeling of regional instability, and internationalizing an old issue can only serve an extraregional power and some of its unconditional allies. Thus, Japan, a country that is highly depending on American military power, shifts its strategic priorities for the first time in decades: it goes at sea and develops its projection capabilities in order to be directly involved in the South China Sea dynamics. After more than seven decades, Japanese forces could be seen in the area within the next few years. To this, we shall add the tremendous development of Australian naval power if the  »century’s agreement » concluded with France for the construction of 12 ultramodern Barracuda-derived type submarines was to succeed. Yet, the acquisition of these submarines, which will be equipped by the Americans, obviously aims to allow Australia to project its power a far as the South China Sea and to increase its presence in the area, very likely in a spirit of close cooperation – and even of complementarity – with American naval forces.

In my opinion, the core issue being politico-strategic, this means that the ground left to subjectivity is wider than in a dispute in which Law would be more precise in what it provides. Because we should remind that the U.S. demands in the South China Sea an almost total freedom of military activities, going well beyond the simple transit (intelligence gathering, marine data gathering). But this freedom is nowhere expressly and beyond any doubt guaranteed by UNCLOS. Therefore, even if we do not aim here to legitimate or invalidate Chinese claims and actions in the region, it is nevertheless necessary, in terms of analysis, to place all the actors on the same starting line. From this point of view, is there any criterion allowing to establish objectively the American strategic posture in the area as more legitimate and less questionable than the Chinese one?

  1. For this various data, see: The Diplomat: Who is the Biggest Aggressor in the South China Sea? (09/18/2015). Available on: http://thediplomat.com/2015/06/who-is-the-biggest-aggressor-in-the-south-china-sea/ (may 2016). []
  2. The baselines are the points from which are measured the maritime zones attributed to any land territory. UNCLOS provides two types of baselines: normal baselines and straight baselines. The former follow the coastal geography: in that case, the coastal State does not have internal waters. The latter are used in presence of a complex coastal geography, in order to ease the maritime delimitation line drawing. The maritime space located between these straight baselines and the land territory is called internal waters and benefit of the same status with land territory: coastal State has a total sovereignty on it and innocent passage in not allowed, neither for commercial ships, nor for warships. []

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