The rise of China has unsettled much of the world and especially its neighbors, since like most rising powers it’s making its newfound strength and influence felt overseas. Chinese investment in Africa is so substantial at this point that it’s propping up entire countries. The Chinese alliance with Pakistan is tighter than ever, and China wants to build an oil pipeline across Pakistan to open up a backdoor route for its precious oil supply. China’s support for North Korea keeps that rickety regime erect despite international fury over its temper tantrums and crime. China’s hatred for Japan flares up from time to time through territorial disputes and complaints about Japan’s handling of its own war history.
But most of all, it’s the dispute in the South China Sea that disturbs the region, since more than anything else it shows that China wants to be the regional hegemon (dominant power) and doesn’t care who stands in its way. Let’s look at how this dispute flared up and consider whether it’s serious.
East Asia is fundamentally different from, say, Europe, because of its geography. The area is much bigger and more spread out. China takes up the bulk of the landmass, India most of the rest. Aside from the 5 countries of mainland Southeast Asia hanging underneath China, the rest of the countries are islands and peninsulas separated from each other and with very different histories and outlooks. In the center of Southeast Asia, though, is the South China Sea, which connects China with Vietnam, the Philippines, and, at the southern end, Borneo. It’s always been a very important stage for trade, since it’s easiest to approach China from the south (unless you’re northern nomads). It’s also how China has historically projected its influence over Southeast Asia. Chinese trade binds the region together, and Chinese settlers play important roles all over Southeast Asia, including in Vietnam and the Philippines, the main South China Sea countries. But for the most part, the countries ignored each other; there was never a Chinese imperial expansion southwards into Southeast Asia.* The countries mostly developed according to their own rhythms and cultures.
BUT… There are two groups of tiny islands in the South China Sea, and both of them are far enough away from land to make them hot-button issues to fight over. The Paracels are located between China and Vietnam. The Spratlys are pretty much in the middle of the sea (but pretty far from China). (Both of these groups have other names in local languages, which I won’t use here to be neutral.) To be blunt, it’s unclear who controlled these islands in premodern times. Most likely, it was nobody; they’re far from land and mostly of interest to passing fishermen. But there are overlapping claims and conflicting historical records that have fueled an ongoing dispute.
The disputes have raged on and off throughout the 1900s, but the stakes have risen in this decade as the countries around the sea have gotten more aggressive in defending their claims and sailing into the troubled waters. All involved are guilty of a certain degree of stubbornness, unrealistic claims, and arrogance, but one country has rattled more nerves than anyone else. I’ll bet you can guess which one.
Going by pure geography, China has a fairly weak claim to the sea — it has a smallish coastline along it and it’s far from the Spratlys. It does have historical records claiming the islands, but without settling them it’s hard to prove a strong connection. Also, China’s conception of foreign relations was a bit different in the imperial era; it saw itself as the only country that mattered, with most others as tributaries or satellites, and claimed places that would be surprised to be considered Chinese today.
But China has a strong claim in another category: raw military strength. Where once the occasional Chinese fishing boat sailed, coast guard ships patrolled instead. Now the Chinese navy roams the sea, intimidating other navies and muscling them out. (It kicked South Vietnamese soldiers off of the Paracels in 1974 when their country was falling apart and North Vietnam was too dependent on Chinese help to object.) Its navy has occupied Scarborough Shoal, a shoal not very far from the Philippines, since 2012, after reneging on an agreement for both China and the Philippines to pull back. An airstrip and city administration (that governs maybe a thousand people) has been built on Woody Island in the Paracels. The navy has been engaged in large-scale dredging operations in the Spratlys for the past 2 years, most likely to make the shallow atolls and inlets there into full-fledged islands, capable of housing…?
It should not be too hard to understand why this territorial dispute is the hottest one China’s involved in now. Look at the map above. China’s claim is by far the most aggressive, covering 90% of the sea. It basically restricts the other countries around it to their own narrow coastlines. It’s the equivalent of a big guy coming over to a table ringed by squabbling customers and scooping up all the food there. What makes matters worse is China’s haughty attitude toward the complaints it gets: it both thunders that there is no dispute to talk about and explodes when foreigners are found in “its” waters. China’s aggression has united the other countries in opposition to it, and they regularly complain about Chinese maneuvers in the region’s various forums. These never go anywhere and often degenerate into bickering and bad blood on all sides.
Why is China — and for that matter, everyone else — acting so assertively? In part, it’s nationalism. After enduring a century of humiliation by unexpectedly stronger foreign powers, China is determined to carve out a bigger place for itself in the world, and the South China Sea is a tempting target. Heck, it even has China’s name on it. Nationalism is a powerful force in other countries as well, and it makes it hard for any government to back down when it looks like it’s being pushed around. But the South China Sea is also a vital passageway, even more so now than before. Europe and East Asia are 2 of the world’s most critical economic regions, and most of the maritime traffic between them passes through the South China Sea (1/3 of all maritime traffic in the world, actually). Arabia and Iran are also west of China, and that means their precious, precious oil passes through the South China Sea. 80% of China’s oil comes through these waters. Finally, the South China Sea is rich in natural resources. There’s a medley of fish swimming through the ocean to tempt Asia’s seafood lovers, but also a bounty of oil and natural gas. China estimates up to 130 billion barrels of oil might lie under there.
The military aspect of this whole conflict is what makes observers increasingly nervous. The Chinese navy easily outclasses all of its rivals in the area. All the dredging and land-expansion could be put to use for military purposes. If the Paracels and Spratlys are turned into Chinese naval bases, China would be able to project its power into Southeast Asia and engage in a bit of old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. Its attitude has basically been to ignore international law (it didn’t even show up in court last year when the Philippines sued it over its claims and activities) and rely on force to get its way. Since it’s way stronger than any of its rivals, this is a dangerous tactic. It’s pushed the members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the region’s multinational grouping) closer together than ever before – but that still might not be enough to face China down.
So what stands in the way of China exerting mastery over the waves? America, the post-World War II guarantor of stability in East Asia. America, despite its close alliance with the Philippines, doesn’t officially take a position in the dispute. But its attitude has tilted it decidedly against China. It wants to preserve freedom of navigation in the sea, which basically means letting its ships sail through it unhindered. A UN convention backs it up on this, but China claims the area around the Paracels and Spratlys as its territorial waters and harasses any ships that sail through them. This hasn’t stopped America from doing so in the past year, even though the diplomatic reaction from China was fierce. America has also sided with ASEAN in the regional forums that it can participate in. (Awkwardly, America itself hasn’t even ratified the UN convention on this.)
This does put Southeast Asia in an awkward position, though. As angry as it is at China and its “What are you gonna do about it, punk?” position, it can’t reasonably stand up to it. China is the dominant power in the region, after all. It has become East Asia’s economic dynamo. It has major commercial ties and investment throughout Southeast Asia. As galling as it may be, Southeast Asia would probably rather cede the sea than risk war over some sand. ASEAN’s M.O. has always been to emphasize geniality and commonality rather than address conflict, and it doesn’t have many levers to pull against China. All it can reasonably do is rely on America — and despite what some Americans say, its interest in the region is debatable, whereas for China it’s a core national interest.
Whether China actually seeks to dominate Southeast Asia as an imperial power is in doubt. It could just be trying to secure shipping lanes and planting the flag in a few specks of sand in the middle of the sea. But countries with growing economies and increasing worldwide investments tend to take steps to secure those investments with force. The relevant historical analogue here might be America itself 100 years ago. In 1898, it threw Spain out of its last colonies in the New World, Cuba and Puerto Rico. It then colonized Puerto Rico, set up a naval base in Cuba, and instigated a revolt in Panama so it’d be allowed to build a canal there. The Caribbean Sea became “an American lake” – a sea patrolled by the American navy, which was used to back up American investment in the Caribbean’s islands and even attack them when they didn’t do what America wanted. Along with America’s annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, that was how the US took its first steps toward becoming a superpower.
Of course, at the time the US had presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, who crowed about American supremacy and took active steps to subjugate the Caribbean and Central America. China has steadily preached noninterference in foreign matters and denies any imperial intentions. After moving an oil rig into Vietnamese waters in 2014 provoked anti-Chinese riots, it’s come to realize the costs of its aggression and has been trying recently to present a kinder, more understanding face to Southeast Asia. It might not be too hard for China to portray America as the aggressor in the conflict – or, you know, for the US to actually be the aggressor, given its record.
The South China Sea dispute is a complicated issue. Figuring out how to untangle the overlapping claims and defuse the roiling national pride there would not be easy. (I haven’t even mentioned Taiwan, who also makes China’s expansive claims on the grounds that it, as the Republic of China, made the same claims back when it controlled China. Even though it doesn’t really border the South China Sea now.) It’s also important to recognize that China already is the dominant power in East Asia, and Great Powers usually look after their strategic weaknesses and hot spots carefully. But the international consensus, even outside of Southeast Asia, is that China is behaving aggressively and even imperialistically. Its coded message seems to be that might makes right. Its refusal to even discuss the issue screams that it lacks regard for its neighbors, some of whom (like Vietnam) have historic distrust of China already. For all the misgivings Southeast Asia collectively has about American military power there, it’s obviously leaning towards America in the overarching Sino-American showdown. (Vietnam has been noticeably cozying up to it, and the Philippines is welcoming American forces back there after a 2-decade absence.) The American-led international order has served it well since World War II, and China is an unknown, and somewhat worrying, factor.
So when America speaks of “pivoting” or “rebalancing” its attention towards East Asia, the South China Sea is definitely an area of concern. Like Ukraine, it’s not an issue America (or anyone else) really wants to inflame into open war, but also like Ukraine, America sees it as an important test of its will to stand up to cocky, unfriendly rising powers. Unless someone backs down, open war is what it might come to.
*The exception being Vietnam. There was also a Chinese invasion of Java at one point, but it failed and that was when China was under Mongol rule anyway.