The struggle for the South China Sea points towards Beijing’s wider ambitions

The first anniversary of the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that upheld the Philippines’ territorial claims to disputed sections of the South China Sea over Beijing’s assertion of sovereignty passed on 12 July without incident, or any indication Beijing had any intention of abiding by the court’s finding.

Instead, Beijing has spent the 12 months following the ICJ ruling that deemed Beijing’s claim to around 90 per cent of the South China Sea invalid busily strengthening and militarising the expanded or artificial islands it has spent billions of dollars – and untold political capital – developing in recent years.

Since the ICJ ruling former president Barack Obama’s U.S. administration’s generally cautious policies towards Beijing’s expansionist, and at time overtly challenging, agenda regarding what China’s President Xi Jinping appears to consider a core strategic region essential for his country’s security has been replaced by the more mercurial and harder to read Trump government.

Stepped up U.S. naval and air movements in the region have unsurprisingly led to increased Chinese military activity and heightened rhetoric from political and military leaders in both countries

Stepped up U.S. naval and air movements in the region have unsurprisingly led to increased Chinese military activity and heightened rhetoric from political and military leaders in both countries, while also encouraging Washington’s treaty, traditional and emerging allies to offer symbolic military support through actual or promised naval and air force deployments well within Beijing’s huge maritime claims. Japanese, Indian, Australian and most recently British warships have in recent months taken part or plan to join exercises with the U.S. or regional navies in the South China Sea. Beijing has branded such actions as provocative and aimed at containing China’s legitimate security aspirations, but to date has failed to back up its evident anger and concern with any material or concerted military response beyond generalised rhetorical threats and warnings.

ASSESSMENT

Whatever Beijing’s reasons for creating a literally artificial crisis among the atolls, reefs and islets scattered across much of the South China Sea, its ‘nine-dash line’ claim to these often-miniscule features and their adjacent waters more than a thousand kilometres from its own mainland territory have served to transmit a message.

Beijing’s strategy of creating ‘facts on the ground’ with the largely artificial islands its dredgers and construction crews have formed from millions of tonnes of sand, concrete and steel has to date worked well in terms of China demonstrating to international and domestic audiences its technical competence and political will to assert what the country’s leaders view as the country’s longstanding failure to command the respect it is due.


Among many regional nations this policy of demonstrative expansionism rooted in often dubious historical reality has – for now at least – been received and decoded variously as either a direct threat or an opportunity to reset relations to access economic benefits in exchange for complicity and subservience. Vietnam and Indonesia can be broadly placed in the first category and the Philippines and Malaysia in the second.

The U.S. has, to date, largely sought to emphasis that its only interest in the South China Sea is to ensure that international freedom-of-navigation operation rights are upheld. Washington has been careful in the recent past to emphasise it did not overtly support any of the South-East Asian countries in dispute with Beijing over its ‘nine-dash line’ or other unilateral claims to maritime and land territories the U.N. ruled as far beyond Beijing’s natural borders, rendering them void.

Beijing’s conduct towards the South China Sea also serves as a pointer to a far wider strategy that, in terms of tracing a similar trajectory to past and highly disruptive and destabilising historical processes

Beijing’s conduct towards the South China Sea also serves as a pointer to a far wider strategy that, in terms of tracing a similar trajectory to past and highly disruptive and destabilising historical processes – rather than direct political comparisons – should concern any regional and more distant powers seeking to assess China’s strategic aims and likely outcomes.

While Beijing is highly unlikely to have based its medium- to longer-term regional strategy on the example of other nations, the process it has adopted to promote its interests in the South China Sea littoral can be seen as tracing a similar path to pre-second world war Germany as that country sought hegemony in what it viewed as readily absorbed countries or regions along it eastern frontier…

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