The South China Sea dispute between China and peripheral countries reminds one of the famous quote by the US sea power strategist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Whoever rules the waves, rules the world.” He makes this apt judgement after noticing the rise of Great Britain, in early 17th and 18th century, on account of its impeccable blue water navy. Mahan categorically points out that command of the sea is vital to national growth and security. He propunds that a country lying adjacent to an open sea is conducive to emerge as a superpower because of its easy access to trade and commerce. It ushers in economic prosperity with its huge naval fleet to protect the merchant ships from enemy on strategic sea lanes of communication. The geographical position of a country and its accessibility to sea has an added advantage of prosperity than the landlocked country. Mahan’s naval books are considered bible not only by the US Navy but also by other countries such as Germany and Japan which was evident in the naval race prior to World War I and he continues to influence the 21st century naval strategists around the world.
Compared to Great Britain’s insular position in Atlantic Ocean, Mahan believes that the US position in Pacific Ocean is conducive to its rise as superpower through control of the sea. In his book Influence of Sea Power Upon History, he gives a detailed analysis of the US’s strategic interest in the Caribbean Sea as a forward base linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for commercial and military purpose extending upto Asia. This is similar to Britain’s strategic base in Gibraltar and Malta as an opening for trade, invasion and acquisition of territories. Intrestingly, Mahan’s influence is also profound in China’s maritime strategic culture. Influenced by the US and Britain, Chinese naval strategist imbibed Mahan’s book page by page to build a Chinese maritime power. His book is a guiding philosophy for every Chinese naval strategist to build a massive blue water naval capability.
Just like the geostrategic importance of Caribbean in American naval base, China chose South China Sea as its strategic forward base. The Chinese naval strategist propagates a ‘Two Island Chain Strategy’ to establish a forward base and emerge as sea power challenging the US presence in the region. The first island chain includes the Yellow Sea, western East China Sea, Taiwan and South China Sea. The second island chain, knits Kuriles through Japan, the Bonin, the Mariana Islands and Caroline. China is retaining its supremacy over the South China Sea by constructing ports, bridges, and artificial island. They dock naval ships, fighter jets, patrol ships, and submarines on the disputed islands to monitor and block all non-Chinese ships. If China maintains its control via the ‘two Island Chains’ and commands the vital sea lanes of communication, it can beat the US in becoming the next generation super power. The potential hegemon (China) wants to get rid of the existing hegemon (US) from the South China Sea region to take control of the Two Island Chain and thereby emerge as seapower itself. To equal the US navy, China has added muscle power to its navy and intensified its frequent patrolling near the disputed islands of South China Sea. It wants to convert the South China Sea as an isolated region where no foreign military ship can interfere similar to the Monroe Doctrine of America which converted the western hemisphere as its ‘sphere of influence.’ This power struggle in the South China Sea rings the bell of power transition theory by A F K Organski who theorizes the hegemonic transition from Britain to the US in the 20th century and from US to China in 21st century.
Organski, in his theory describes, as the potential hegemon (China) country is dissatisfied with the existing international order ruled by the existing hegemon (the US), the former will strive to swing the balance of power to its favour. To achieve this transition Organski explains that the potential hegemon has to augment the necessary wealth to modernize its army and navy.
At present, US occupies the crucial strategic chokepoints that forms the pivot of China’s expansionist ‘Two Island Chains’ policy. US has always been a hindrance to China because of its presence in Taiwan and Philipinnes (First Island Chain) and Japan and Guam (Second Island Chain). The presence has continued from the Cold War days. To fulfil the objective in South China Sea, China has been involved in building advanced military technology like anti access and area denial ballistic missiles, long range cruise missiles and nuclear aircraft carrier directed against all the foreign ships entering the South China Sea.
There are several instances where the Chinese navy assaulted Vietnamese and Philipines fishing vessels and oil exploration ships in South China Sea. Similarly, the oil explorations in Exclusive Economic Zone of Vietnam in South China Sea by Petro Vietnam in ties with Indian oil company, ONGC Videsh Limited, was disrupted by Chinese navy. Several non Chinese fisherman were arrested and killed in the brawls with the Chinese navy.
Why China wants South China Sea as its strategic base?
China has a hostile inaccessible land terrain of high mountains in Pamir in its south west and Gobi desert in its north west. The South and East China Sea towards its east which is the easiest route for China’s trade and commerce. The maximum concentration of human development activites such as agriculture, fishing, trade and industrial production has developed in the coastal region which has in turn surged the economic growth of China. Due to this increasing role of China in its neighboring sea it is causing friction among its neighbors. After the discovery of oil, gas and other hydrocarbon reserves in South China Sea, China unilaterally claimed maritime rights over the entire South China sea forcefully taking control of all the uninahabited islands such as Paracel Island, Sparatly Island, Scraborough Shoal, and other islands that are in dispute with their peripheral countries. Besides, South China Sea consist of crucial Sea Lanes of Communication, the most important of which being the Malacca Strait, enroute for 80% of world’s trade.
The present controversy is that the China’s interest in South China Sea overlaps with neighboring countries maritime rights. According to United Nation Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), every country has a martime rights over 12NM territorial waters and 200NM of EEZ for exploration and scientific activities. However, Chinese claim over South China Sea impinges the maritime soverign rights of its neighboring countries. In several occasions, China, Philipines and Vietnam have gone by the bullet to reclaim their rights beginning 1974, when China and Vietnam fought over the Paracel Island, with China defeating the latter. Later with the Philipines, China forcefully took control of Scraboruogh Shoal in 2012. The country has continued to override the maritime rights of Philipinese, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan for oil drilling, construction of artificial islands along the disputed islands and frequent patrolling of navy ships.
Out of despair and limited hope, the Philippines approached the International Arbitral Tribunal in Hague in 2013 for justice over the maritime rights in South China Sea in accordance to the UNCLOS. On July 12, 2016, the Tribunal uniamously declared Chinese ‘nine dash line map’ illegal as it has no historical evidence to validate its claim. But drawing from history, China assertively claims that the nine dash line map was proposed by former premier of Communist China, Mao Zedong. Earlier, the nine dash line was part of the eleven dash line map proposed by the President of Republic of China, Chiang Kai Shek, the founder of Taiwan, in 1954 and continues to uphold the same disputed map of South China Sea as its integral part of territory. Vietnam has made its claim based on legal historical records of its rule in South China Sea region from 17th century. Similar claims are also made by other counries such as the Philipinnes, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
However, China blatantly called the ruling ‘null and void’ and non-binding. Neverthless, the UNCLOS is binding on its member who ratified the agreement. China ratified the agreement in 1996 and it is obliged to respect the maritime rights of the neighboring countries. In matter of claiming power in the region, international law and diplomacy plays less of a role. China is mulling to withdrew from the UNCLOS agreement as China cannot exercise control over South China Sea within the existing laws. The national interest of a country is privy to a countries’ compliance of international law. China repeatedly warned the South East Asian countries against internationalizing the issue and solve the dispute bilaterally rather than multilaterally. On the other hand, the South East Asian countries are aware that bilateral negotiations would mean overpowering by China on South China Sea. So the South East Asian countries have turned towards external help to contain China’s threat in the region and gurantee the safe passage and freedom of navigation in South China Sea.
The rising assertion by China in the region prompted the US to introduce the US Asia Pacific Pivot Strategy to counter China’s rise in the region. Even though the South East Asian countries welcomed the US move in the region, they are sceptical of a US role in countering China. Out of the ten ASEAN countries, only Vietnam and Philippines welcomed the US strategy wholeheartedly. This was because of ongoing Chinese aggression on their fisherman, oil riggers, and iilegal construction of artificial islands in their respective EEZ region. For example, construction of Sansha in Paracel island and most recently, China has been building islands along Mischief and Subi Reef. Brunei has taken a neutral stand without aligning either with the US or China. Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia decided to hedge between the US and China suiting to their advantageous position without disrupting the relationship with either of them. The only country to side with China unanimously is Cambodia because military and financial aid provided by China.
The US finds it necessary to balance China in the region because it doesn’t want a competitor to overpower its superpower status. The altruistic attitude of the US to intervene in the region is not to solve the problems of South East countries but rather to protect its own bases, sea lanes of communication for freedom of navigation, and respect for existing international law and norms. In 2011, 15.2 million barrel (bbl) of oil per day transited the Malcca Strait, just 10 percent less tan Strait of Hormuz. In addition, $5.3 trillion dollars of waternorne trade moves across South China sea lanes of communication every year, with $1.2 trillion belonging to the US. So, the US is looking for likeminded partners in South East Asian countries to restablish its base and allot the US armies in the region to contain China’s aggressive attitude. It is enhancing the bilateral relationship with the countries in the region politically, economically, and militarily. With the general predictions apreading about American ‘declinism’ and the ‘rise’ of China, South East Asian countries are quite skeptical about aligning completely with the US. In case of future security competition between the US and China and the latter happen to overtake the former, the South East Asian countries are very cautious about their approach without impacting their foreign relation with China. Their economies are tied up with China , if they go against China’s interest, it can impact its economy tremendously. When China rejected tribunal’s ruling over South China Sea, the new Philippines government has expressed its willingness to hold a bilateral dialogue with China in a bid to promote common development. Otherwise, China would have impose sanction against its trade which would have affected its economy.
Thus, the South China Sea has become melting pot of intense competition between the contending parties, with China on one side and the US and South East Asian Countries on the other. The July 12 ruling over the South China Sea has intensified Chinese and US military activities in the region. This was similar to the China imposed Air Defense Identification Zone in East China Sea in 2013 - where foreign ships cannot enter the region without the prior permission of China. Similarly, after the ruling, the US also increased its presence in the region and sent its naval ships for military exercises in South China Sea. Rejection of the tribunal ruling by China has possibly apphrehended other countries from taking any action against China for breaches in the sea. Ultimately, China wants to unify Taiwan to mainland China and secure exclusive maritime rights over the South China Sea to emerge as magnificent seapower in the region.
The tribunal ruling was praised by the US, Japan and India as a stepping stone of international law to safeguard the maritime rights in the region. However, China’s non-compliance on UNCLOS has made international law toothless. The South China Sea will be seen as future power games between the US and China to exert power in the region.
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Ashna Joy currently works as faculty in Shankar IAS Academy, Chennai, India. Previously, she worked as a professor for the Master Programme in International Relation at Stella Maris College, Chennai, India.
 Aneja, Atul. “China rejects Hague tribunal ruling as “null and void”, World, the Hindu, July 12, 2016. < http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-rejects-hague-tribunal-ruling-as-null-and-void/article8840206.ece>
 Steffans, W.Aaron, “Scramble in the South China Sea: Regional Conflict and US Strategy”, Strategic Studies Quaterly, 2013
 Aneja, Atul. “China rejects Hague tribunal ruling as “null and void”, World, the Hindu, July 12, 2016. < http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/china-rejects-hague-tribunal-ruling-as-null-and-void/article8840206.ece