Through global history, as States and power systems have vied with each other to expand their footprint, they have fought and won and lost, not always on land—but often on water. Fast forward to 2021, nothing much has changed, for a key site of contest between the United States (US) and its allies on one hand, and China on the other, is South China Sea.
To be sure, the bustling sea bordering China on the south is not the only flashpoint in the ongoing standoff between a largely democratic Western alliance and an increasingly aggressive authoritarian China. Significant battles are raging on other fronts too—such as in semi-autonomous Hong Kong, where the West is decidedly seeking to counter Beijing’s repressive push; in Taiwan, which the West is battling to protect from a looming Chinese military swoop; over Xinjiang, the Uighur-dominated Chinese province that the US feels is a prime example of Chinese persecution of minorities; and over Tibet, which, Western governments have historically felt, deserves at least more autonomy from Beijing’s control.
But in recent years, much of the focus of the US-China standoff has been on escalating activities in and around South China Sea.
The Geography And Significance
A look at some numbers tells us how significant South China Sea is for its stakeholders.
In a world where the fortunes of powerful countries depend hugely on maritime trade, South China Sea’s location and span make it among the most vital geostrategic water bodies in Asia. Covering an area of nearly 3.5 million square kilometres, South China Sea is home to the continent’s most crucial shipping lanes. It is immensely resourceful for the fishing industry, while key sections of it lie on vast oil reserves. It is also peppered with archipelagos, which Beijing has increasing been trying to dominate.
Take trade. The global conflict tracker of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) shows that the total amount of trade that passed through the shipping lanes of South China Sea in 2016 was a whopping $3.37 trillion dollars—and that was a good five years back, it would be higher more recently (right up to pre-pandemic times).
The Washington-based think tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) runs a Beijing-focused China Power Project. It says China exported goods worth $874 billion in 2016, which is, by itself, higher than the combined exports of the next four countries on the list put together—South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. To put that into context, China accounted for 26% of all exports through South China Sea that year. The math looks similar when it comes to imports through the sea’s waters in 2016, with China accounting for imports worth $598 billion—which was a significant 18% of the total imports that passed through South China Sea that year. Again, China’s total imports were higher than the combined imports of Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. The findings also show that 39% of China’s total trade in 2016 passed through South China Sea. In fact, as the same report points out, 64% of China’s total maritime trade that year passed through South China Sea.
Moving on from trade in general to shipments of strategic importance, it’s worth revisiting a report published on November 2, 2017 by the US Energy Information Administration. According to the EIA report, South China Sea is a crucial route for the trade of LNG, and in 2016, almost 40% of global LNG trade, or about 4.7 trillion cubic feet, passed through the sea lanes.
In fact, South China Sea is a major trade route for Malaysia and Qatar. The two LNG exporters together accounted for over 60% of total LNG volumes traded through the South China Sea in 2016. Also, the four LNG importers with the largest volumes passing through the South China Sea are Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan. They collectively account for 94% of total LNG volumes that passed through the South China Sea in 2016. Japan is the world’s largest LNG importer, and more than half of all of Japan’s LNG imports in 2016 were shipped via the South China Sea.
The CFR report cited earlier on goes on to reveal that there are an estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas right under South China Sea, which is exactly why so many countries in the neighbourhood are clamouring to be heard and make their presence felt—China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Emerging Battle
These immense economic benefits associated with South China Sea explains why it has historically been a hotbed of territorial wrangles, and, more importantly, why the US and its allies are trying to ensure that China doesn’t end up muscling out smaller countries in the neighbourhood in its bid to assert itself as the continent’s rising power.
That China’s defence apparatus is steadily turning small islands into de facto military bases is nowadays the worst-kept secret of South China Sea. In fact, Beijing recently made it known to the world—and especially to its critics in the West—that it is going to carry out a series of wide-ranging military drills in South China Sea for an unusually lengthy month-long spell. China’s military has even made it known according to news reports that other military vessels should ideally stay away from the area throughout March.
It is, therefore, no surprise if the US Navy conducts several rounds of “freedom of navigation operations” in the South China Sea, and in alliance with the navies of other countries that also object to China’s growing aggression and military showboating. Germany, for example, has announced that it would send across a frigate to sail through the South China Sea later this month as a powerful message to China. It would mark the first time in 19 years that a German naval vessel will pass through the disputed sea—and it comes at a time when Washington is looking up to its allies to ramp up pressure on Beijing.
Freedom of navigation operations, popularly known as FONOPs, are not new—it was during the Barack Obama years that Pentagon had emphatically carried out FONOPs in the South China Sea as many as six times, repeatedly sending across a message to Beijing that what it thinks is its backyard is not exclusively so.
With territorial fights over the control of Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands; Beijing’s policy to militarise gigantic sections of the South China Sea and assert its command over islands peppering the area; Washington’s decision to make the US Navy exercise its right to the freedom of navigation in the sea; China’s decision to seek to deter American naval presence in the region; US calls for the international community to take note of Chinese militarisation of the region; heated exchanges between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan—the South China Sea has been consistently making headlines in a fast escalating geopolitical contest.
The Nine-Dash Line And Territorial Disputes
China’s cartographic initiative in South China Sea, which is the basis for its expansive geopolitical posture, is unilateral. Interestingly, although it’s popularly referred to as the nine-dash line, the demarcation was originally named 11-dash line by the Chinese back in 1947. Five years later, China tweaked the map to let the Gulf of Tonkien stay out of its territorial ring—thereby dropping two dashes from the map that eventually made it the nine-dash line. Historians and analysts write that China decided to concede control over the waters of the Gulf of Tonkien as part of the deal with its then-ally, Communist Vietnam. In 2010, China marginally extended the demarcation to its east to include a part of the East China Sea, thereby adding a tenth dash to the controversial map.
Countries in the area that have vehemently protested China’s overambitious territorial claims since then are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. They neither formally recognise the so-called nine-dash line nor do they approve of China’s attempt to militarise the waters of the South China Sea.
A close look at the area in and around the South China Sea gives us a clear picture of the damaging impact that the nine-dash line has had on stability in the region. Interestingly, the most prominent disputes that today define the instability in the South China Sea all involve different sets of claimant countries, although the nature of the wrangles is fundamentally the same.
China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have conflicting claims wholly or partly over the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, Vereker Banks and Macclesfield Bank. The same countries—in various combinations—have contesting claims over other less-known islands, banks and reefs in that zone.
The maritime boundary to the north of the island of Borneo, which is divided among Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia, is another area of contention. China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have contrasting claims over that disputed zone. The maritime boundary along the coast of Vietnam is also enmeshed in a territorial dispute, with the Vietnamese government, Taiwan and China making contesting claims. An equally contentious zone is the maritime border near the Natuna Islands, which has seen China, Indonesia and Taiwan vying for a final say.
There are several other maritime boundaries that are deeply disputed—such as the contested demarcations near Palawan and Luzon in the Philippines; the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern part of Borneo; and numerous small islands peppering the Luzon Strait. Territorial rights to these small but geopolitically sensitive islands are contested variously by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Of Salami Slicing And A Board Game
From China’s point of view, defending the South China Sea is essential because much of the country’s fortunes rely heavily on it. But the Xi Jinping administration and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seem to have long forgotten that there’s a fine line between defending one’s interests in one’s vicinity, and snuffing out other legitimate claimants in the neighbourhood.
Many analysts often refer to China’s subtle acts of hegemonic aggression in the South China Sea as what is called “salami slicing”—meaning, Beijing doesn’t carry out spectacular swoops on new areas, but instead expands its territorial footprint little by little so that the aggression is spread out over time and largely goes unnoticed. What today seems like Beijing today gnawing away at areas could, years and decades down the line, add up to something too big to reverse without intervention.
Other analysts see a cultural connection to the way China is tactfully spreading its wings in the South China Sea. A sporting connection, to be more precise. A strategic board game called Go is hugely popular among the Chinese and historians say it dates back by at least 2,500 years. It’s a two-player game in which the contenders have to surround more territory on the board than that cornered by the opponent. Well, that sounds eerily similar to the South China Sea story, doesn’t it?