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Exclusive: Sympathy for the Dragon: Why China Wants the South China Sea

For the past few weeks, I have talked about Chinese interests in securing maritime lines of communication. Whether in the straits of Indonesia, the Gulf of Aden, or the Indian Ocean, I have described China as a rising power that is using its military muscle to ensure its strategic interests globally. However, in my haste, I fear the practice of sharing my thoughts may have instilled wrong impressions for China’s contemporary maritime role. The image of China in present media, an assertive and aggressive China is only part of the story.

Why is China interested in the South China Sea? Should we accept Robert Kaplan’s thesis that domestic insecurity has pushed Beijing to revive nationalism through aggressive foreign policy? While Kaplan’s reasoning provides a strong explanation to an extent, he does not claim to understand the motivation behind China’s involvement in the first place. Nationalism may be helpful for domestic squabbles; however, there is no single reason.

Besides nationalism, the sea hosts a major amount of global trade and is also filled with a lot of natural resources, including minerals and energy. A growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea would be beneficial as China would be able to control the trade routes under their own terms as well as access the bountiful resources beneath the ocean depths. The growing presence, as well as the land reclamation, is a means for China to control the sea at the expense of neighbors like Vietnam and the Philippines who also lay claim to the contested islands.


The portrayal of China as this ruthless and forceful power is not the whole picture. While trade and energy security as well as access to the natural resources of the sea are valuable goals, China’s presence in the sea is as much an issue of its own security as it is a search for resources and shipping control.

Consider a previous article in which I highlighted the importance of the Malacca Strait for China’s trade and energy security. It is important to notice that Singapore, which has a littoral presence to the Malacca Strait and Australia, which has a littoral presence near the Lombok Strait, could effectively choke out Chinese trade through the straits which would damage China’s economy and energy security. It also doesn’t help that the United States Navy is stationed at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base while the United States Marines are stationed in Darwin, Australia.

However, if the straits are so important, why does China continue to threaten its security in those straits by continuing its presence in the South China Sea? Why does China continue to threaten ASEAN members in the sea when Singapore (and the US) could chokehold the Malacca Strait?

The reason is two-fold. First of all, China trusts that the United States and Singapore would not block off the Malacca Strait, as doing so would result in substantial geopolitical repercussions. The same could be said about the United States and Australia around the Lombok Strait. The relationship between China and the United States (as well as China with Australia and ASEAN) is so nuanced that blocking off important straits in response to Chinese efforts in the South China Sea would not only be rash, but unwise, as it could lead to an escalation of military proportions.

The second reason requires a bit of background.

In 2014, John Mearsheimer published an article in Foreign Affairs blaming the Ukraine crisis, in which Russia seized the Crimea peninsula and supported rebels in the Donbas region, on the West. According to Mearsheimer, Russian actions in Ukraine were defensive responses inspired by what was seen as NATO and EU encroachment against Russia. Under the Clinton and second Bush administrations, NATO brought in many of the former eastern bloc countries, some of which even joined the EU. When Ukrainian Maidan protests began to sweep Ukraine with talks of NATO and EU membership, it was the last straw, and Russia acted in order to prevent future Western encroachment against Russia – first by seizing Crimea, which could be a center of strategic interest against Russia and then by supporting pro-Russian forces in Ukraine in order to keep the EU and NATO from out of Russia’s strategic area.


Why do I take time to consider Mearsheimer’s arguments about a completely separate event in an entirely different region of the world? It is because I believe that in the same way that Russia was acting defensively in response to NATO and EU encroachment, China is also acting in response to US encirclement in the region.

China’s actions in the South China Sea, I believe, were carefully calculated. History, resources and trade all played a role in China’s desire to seize islands in the South China Sea; however, it was US influence in East Asia that has pushed China to build up its defenses in the disputed waters. For that reason, China was able to determine that the important Indonesian straits would not be threatened should they take a stronger stance in the disputed waters. The debates about the region have gone on for a long time. However, it is at this point that all the cards are right for China to increase its presence in the sea in order to protect its national interests.

It is easy to look at the leaders of Russia and China and see them as devoid of the fear that is present in the leaders of the West. It is easy for Westerners, particularly Americans, to forget the expansive presence of the United States military and to subconsciously conclude that a US presence is inherently beneficial for the security of the region.

US Bases
US Military presence in various Asia-Pacific countries

However, what is regional security to the United States is encirclement for China, and seeing close US relations with Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, as well as arms sales to Taiwan, China is wary about the American presence in Asia. It is no wonder that the Chinese have put so much focus on the Sea in order to provide flexibility for submariners for China’s nuclear and security concerns.

Militarily, the US pivot to Asia was an oddity as the United States already has a nearly unchallengeable presence in Asia. Now that the Chinese have filled a regional power vacuum, created when the US withdrew troops from the Philippines, US military activity in the area is back and tensions between the United States and China are high. It does not help that many of the regional actors: Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, have sought closer ties with the United States as well as with each other in order to decry the Chinese presence in the South China Sea. The role of India and Australia has also increased tensions as the countries possess their own interests near the disputed waters.

Thankfully, the South China Sea is not the only issue in US-China relations, and the nuances have kept the relationship afloat. As tensions flare in the South China Sea, it is important for the United States to heed Henry Kissinger’s warning that treating China as an enemy would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. While China’s assertiveness in the region remains inexcusable, the United States and its partners in the region must make it a point to recognize China’s interests without ignoring China’s affront to international law. By acknowledging China’s security interests in the region, the United States and its regional partners should be sure to avoid anything that resembles an arm race that would escalate tensions. This would be the wisest choice, as it would avoid unnecessary bloodshed in the region.

By AARON WALAYAT Mar. 28, 2016 on USCNPM