Is the South China Sea China's Geostrategic Bluff?
Abstract: China is set on becoming a superpower by 2049. To achieve that, Beijing needs to tackle its main weakness: geography. In the past decades, China has strived to secure its borders to the west, south and most significantly, its maritime borders to the east. The South China Sea is fundamental for China’s growth as it provides the country with vast natural resources and grants safe passage to 40% of its maritime trade. Beijing is slowly but surely achieving its goal with its two-pronged approach of showing hostility towards its maritime neighbors while at the same time offering them economic support and large investments. However, China’s strategy in the South China Sea is only a part of a greater geopolitical puzzle to become a superpower. China’s multiple open fronts in other fields and geographic areas signal that Beijing may have bigger interests elsewhere.
Bottom-line-up-front: The latest events in the South China Sea tell us volumes about China's deception warfare strategy. Except for a show of strength, no actual development has been witnessed. This implies that China’s greatest interests lie elsewhere. These interests are being accomplished while the world is engrossed in the South China Sea's instability. So, it is important to pay attention to what China is doing in many geostrategic sectors.
Problem statement: How can China's "pocket warfare strategy" make it a global powerhouse? Or, would military maneuver and fake aggression prompt a preemptive attack from the threatened party, culminating in a full-fledged conflict?
So what?: This Pocket Warfare Strategy (Pocket warfare is similar to Guerilla warfare. Because the adversary is formidable in direct combat, you begin by aggressively challenging him in fast-moving, small scale actions in every strategic field - military (hypersonic missiles, anti-satellite missiles, fighter aircraft J-20) to technology (Semiconductor, AI, Cybersecurity, 5G) to economy (massive investments in countries to bring within its sphere of influence) - and eventually defeating him.) can be counterproductive for China as it stretches its capabilities too thin. Moreover, it is likely to trigger the US, who may resort to the stalemate, culminating in military escalation. In order to avoid miscalculation, both parties should keep the diplomatic communication window open in order to save the world from another devastating conflict.
“I think the implications for the rise of China are huge in terms of the political landscape, economic balance, development thinking, and the environment.”
- Sri Mulyani Indrawati
The current global order cannot be discussed without including China. In the twenty-first century, China has risen to the occasion and continues to do so politically and economically. In order to comprehend China's strategy to become a superpower, it is first necessary to solve its geopolitical jigsaw puzzles region by region. With all the pieces in place, it will be possible to get a broader picture of what is truly happening. The South China Sea (SCS) is an indispensable piece of the jigsaw. It is one in which Beijing displays its strength aggressively, although no meaningful action or reaction occurs. China purposefully aims to create war hysteria in the South China Sea and along the borders with India but then backs off before the actual conflict occurs.
The South China Sea (SCS) is an indispensable piece of the jigsaw. It is one in which Beijing displays its strength aggressively, although no meaningful action or reaction occurs.
China can be thought of as a geopolitical prisoner, encircled by strategic rivals in almost every direction. In the East and South-east, its maritime claims under the 9-dash line are surrounded by land and sea by pro-American nations that balance their strong economic ties with China with their military connections with the US. Part of its South and South-west borders are still being contested with India in the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Finally, its Westernmost region of Xinjiang, which borders Afghanistan and the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, is being closely monitored for any rise in Islamic extremism among its Muslim majority population. The return of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan poses a threat to China’s internal security in Xinjiang.
Despite China being confronted on multiple fronts, the one that makes headlines time and time again is the one playing out in SCS. Beijing is adamant about the legitimacy of its claims in the 9-dash line based on historical grounds. Beijing asserts that the islands of the SCS were discovered more than two millennia ago by China's Western Han dynasty. However, its territorial demands spill over other nations' Exclusive Economic Zones. Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines have also laid claims to parts of the SCS, complicating matters further. The Philippines brought the issue to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2016, which concluded China’s claims were unlawful and illegitimate under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Nevertheless, China did not adhere to the ruling.
The US military presence in these waters makes matters more complex. The US has a 1951 Defense Treaty with the Philippines and a military base in Singapore. Although both China and the US are opposed to a military escalation by making misleading maneuvers, the former remains firm in its claims to bring all its reclamations under control. By controlling these waters, China is also laying claim to its gas-rich seabed. With so many interests at stake and actors involved, the quest for the control of the SCS is a zero-sum game. On the one hand, China’s military capabilities are enough to make neighboring countries bow to some of its demands. On the other hand, the US military presence is strong enough to act as a strong deterrent. However, the fundamental question is whether war hysteria can lead to a prolonged standoff and why China is employing these tactics in the first place.
Although both China and the US are opposed to a military escalation by making misleading maneuvers, the former remains firm in its claims to bring all its reclamations under control. By controlling these waters, China is also laying claim to its gas-rich seabed.
China’s Quest for Rejuvenation
Nothing is more painful than a disgraceful past, and China’s millenary history is no exception. The era between 1839 and 1949 is regarded as the "century of humiliation," during which Western powers and Japan conquered the Qing dynasty. As a result, China seeks to reclaim its major historic role in the region as the “Middle Kingdom”. Xi Jinping’s quest to rejuvenate his country aims to recover land and maritime territory he believes once belonged to China. In the SCS, these territories fall under the 9-dash line and include Taiwan and a myriad of small islands, reefs, and shoals in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.
Taiwan is Key
However, China has an Achilles heel. In this case, it is geography. Despite being the fourth largest country in the world, China sees itself as being encroached on all sides by 14 countries and further contained by two island chains at sea. The key that would help unlock this containment strategy in Taiwan. However, the island regards itself as a distinct country, a direct challenge to the "One-China policy." As a result, if China's legitimacy suffers a severe blow at some time, whether from an economic downturn, a nationalist revolt, or a national security threat, an invasion of Taiwan would likely ensue.
Taiwan would bolster China’s trade aspirations in the SCS and provide a more secure route to the Pacific. Therefore, Taipei serves as a major goal for Beijing. China is set on recovering the territories that formerly belonged to it under what is known as the “Chinese dream of great rejuvenation,” and the island is seen as an integral part of this. Such an invasion is highly likely to occur before 2049, as stated by Chinese President Xi on the 100th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party. On July 1, 2021, Xi stated that China aims for total reunification by 2049, including Taiwan, and has vowed to "smash" any attempts at formal independence for the island.
China is set on recovering the territories that formerly belonged to it under what is known as the “Chinese dream of great rejuvenation,” and the island is seen as an integral part of this.
Trade Routes and Resources Galore
China currently has the world's fastest-growing economy and is rich in natural resources. However, these may not be enough to satisfy China’s 1.39 billion inhabitants and a growing and demanding middle class in the long term. It is under these circumstances that the SCS enters the picture. The SCS accounts for one-third of the global maritime trade traffic worth $3.4 trillion. Up to 40% of China’s trade passes through the region.
The SCS also guarantees extensive access to natural resources. Its seabed is laden with reserves of gas (190 trillion cubic feet) and oil (11 billion barrels). It also contains vast fishing grounds and access to strategic choke points. China’s growth as an emerging powerhouse depends on it. As a result, China seeks to control as much area as possible in the SCS to secure safe passage for their commerce and secure oil and gas extraction.
Creating War Hysteria
China's first strategy is keeping a strong presence, especially along its contested borders, to incite alarm among its neighbors. Its well-manned and equipped presence issues threats and incites discontent in disputed regions. In turn, the threat of a likely confrontation puts the neighboring governments in a tight spot, as they are forced to counter these threats. For instance, the 2020 Galwan Valley clash pushed India to step up its military buildup, thereby increasing its defense spending in response to China's persistent threats.
Similarly, China's neighbors in the SCS are beefing up their militaries to mirror Beijing’s aggressiveness. Despite fostering a hostile environment, China never acts on it. President Xi's bluster that China would crush the skull of anybody who dares threaten them has thus far not been acted upon. Why, therefore, does China incite such hysteria in the first place? This leads us to China’s second strategy, the defense-economy imbalance.
President Xi's bluster that China would crush the skull of anybody who dares threaten them has thus far not been acted upon.
The Defense-Economy Imbalance
Beijing believes that instilling fear of conflict will compel its neighbors to increase their military spending and cripple their economies. Because of her continual threat and aggressiveness, neighboring nations have begun to strengthen their militaries and acquire more munitions. This has resulted in an unanticipated reduction in its socioeconomic budget. These budget cuts leave governments unable to meet infrastructure and welfare commitments to develop the nation, leading to internal unrest and instability.
The same countries that China is bullying are, at the same time, being courted by Beijing in economic terms. China is trying to set up an alternative economic model to alter the US-led liberal order. To achieve that, China has arranged reinforcement plans in the form of infrastructure investment banks (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, New Development Bank), regional trade deals (China Pakistan Economic Corridor, China Myanmar Economic Corridor), international trade deals (Belt and Road Initiatives, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership), and security dialogues (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). China has also made arrangements to buy oil and gas from Russia and Iran, which would impact the Petro-yuan as an international currency, downplaying the petrodollar and Western-controlled SWIFT alternatives for international transactions. This two-pronged approach of military provocation and economic promises looks to be working well in China's favor.
As the countries can no longer sustain their socioeconomic costs due to an increase in the defense budget, they depend more and more on China for FDI and infrastructure projects. With its increased economic expenditure, China automatically earns a place at the table in any strategic negotiations. At the same time, Beijing puts pressure on states to obey its directives, even if this means sacrificing its ideals for those countries. This goes hand in hand with the Middle Kingdom's strategy of forcing other countries to recognize China's suzerainty in exchange for cash. More often than not, these governments cannot absorb significant cash inflows and accumulate enormous debts, resulting in a loss of strategic autonomy.
In the past years, Chinese companies have spent billions in funding projects overseas, in what is part of the so-called debt trap strategy. Beijing was well aware that most of those projects were high risk, and the receiving countries would not be able to repay those large sums. However, by building much-needed infrastructure and granting them a seat in mega trade projects like the BRI, China has won over many strategic partners in Asian and East African countries. Sri Lanka's Chinese-controlled ports of Hambantota and Colombo are an excellent example of China’s debt-trap strategy.
Beijing was well aware that most of those projects were high risk, and the receiving countries would not be able to repay those large sums. However, by building much-needed infrastructure and granting them a seat in mega trade projects like the BRI, China has won over many strategic partners in Asian and East African countries.
Is the South China Sea a Strategic Divergence?
Despite all the aggression in the SCS, some reasons point at it being a strategic divergence for China’s other interests. China’s multiple open fronts in other fields and geographic areas signal that Beijing may have bigger interests elsewhere; therefore, it is inventing its own riddle on the SCS to keep the international community engaged there.
First, China’s resource needs do not depend solely on its maritime claims. Its two westernmost regions of Xinjiang and Tibet are rich in natural resources like minerals, oil and gas. They also provide China with much-needed farming land and access to the sources of the Brahmaputra and the Mekong, key rivers in Asia. At the same time, these two regions provide China with a natural buffer zone that separates the main population nucleus in the east from foreign forces.
However, this all comes at a cost as the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities in these areas have been repressed, even to the extent of being sent to internment camps, in an attempt to get rid of any religious threat or political dissent. To protect Xinjiang from separatist movements and secure a trillion-dollar deal in mineral resources in Afghanistan, China is willing to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, which could raise the threat of radical Islamic terror across the globe. Human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet shed a bad light on China's image. As a result, any other activity might be deemed a cover for that.
Second, China has also attempted to assist diplomatically and economically nations and regional actors whom the West has spurned. By strategically gaining power over them, it is establishing its own support structure in the international order. China is attempting to minimize its reliance on SCS and render that zone secondary. Beijing has worked with countries like Pakistan and Myanmar to secure alternative routes to the SCS, like Pakistan’s CPEC and Myanmar’s CMEC. With Iran, China has signed a 25-year strategic agreement worth $400bn. Apart from oil and gas infrastructure, investment in the military arsenal is a critical element of the deal.
Furthermore, China is actively pushing for a Polar Silk Road in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025), eyeing rich mineral riches as well as new shipping routes to Europe and cutting the distance between Europe and Asia by 3,000 miles. North Korea’s deep-water port of Rajin plays a significant role in the route as it gives China access to the northern area of the Sea of Japan. Pyongyang and Beijing signed a 20-year lease on one of the piers of Rajin’s in 2011, but it now controls three extra piers. Over the next decade, the route is rapidly being considered as the next significant maritime route.
North Korea’s deep-water port of Rajin plays a significant role in the route as it gives China access to the northern area of the Sea of Japan.
Lastly, China has spent billions of dollars building up a nuclear arsenal of over 100 in silos to hold Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Innovation and technology-wise, it has also invested heavily in AI, Quantum Physics, Semiconductors, Space and Cyber Warfare. According to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, China is catching up to the United States in the fields of artificial intelligence and quantum computing. To preserve its technical lead, the United States must collaborate with Japan and Korea. China also appears to be influencing American politics, infesting spy agencies with moles in collaboration with Russia.
The century of humiliation taught China to be wary of foreign powers and assured the need to make its inwards and defensive geopolitical strategy become more aggressive. Beijing wants to become an economic behemoth, garnering military might and employing rhetoric to defy Western meddling. At the same time, it is using a carrot and stick policy to pull its neighbours under its sway. Hence, China seeks to downplay the American hegemony in the Indo-Pacific and surpass it.
China has no intention of engaging in a serious battle. Instead, it aspires to be regarded as a superpower in the international community, with the same level of respect, status, and dignity as the United States. China wishes to project a lovable image and expand its network of friends to match that of the United States so as to wield the same level of influence over global events. This would also pave the way for her Asian dream to be realized without the involvement or interference of Western countries . It asserts that Asia is only for Asians.
There are two probable outcomes to this: China may win this conflict without launching a single missile, or its military maneuvering and phony aggression could provoke a preemptive war from the threatened party, leading to an all-out war.
The 100th anniversary of the PRC in 2049 will mark China’s deadline to become a superpower. Racing against time, Beijing has opened too many fronts in too many strategic fields (pockets). It is waging 'pocket warfare,' that is, tiny, intensified competition in too many strategic pockets – military (hypersonic missile, Anti-satellite missiles, fighter aircraft J-20) to technology (Semiconductor, AI, Cybersecurity, 5G) to economy (massive investments in countries to bring within its sphere of influence) - throughout the world. However, this pocket warfare strategy can be counterproductive for China as it stretches its capabilities too thin. Moreover, it is likely to trigger the US, who may resort to the stalemate, culminating in military escalation.
It is waging 'pocket warfare,' that is, tiny, intensified competition in too many strategic pockets throughout the world.
Nevertheless, it does not intend to enter any direct conflict to achieve it, at least not yet. This is where it leaves us wondering: how far does China intend to pull the rope of international order, or does it intend to own the very order giving it Chinese characteristics?
Amit Kumar is a PhD Scholar in International Relations at BITS PILANI, India. He focuses on China Studies. Marta Nuevo is a foreign policy specialist with a focus in Asia-Pacific. She writes about Asian Politics in Spanish media. The views contained in this article are the authors’ alone.
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