Robert Kaplan provides a good background on the geopolitical issues surrounding the South China Sea in his recent book, with separate chapters on the countries involved (Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Taiwan).
Think his base case is that there won’t be war: Europe is a landscape while East Asia a seascape, and the sea reduces the chance of war (e.g. warships travels more slowly, while navies and air forces do not occupy territory the way armies do). He sees China’s position towards the South China Sea akin to the US’ position towards the Caribbean Sea in the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries.
Similar to the author, I came away with more questions and no stronger convictions on what will happen, but I gained a better understanding of the historical background and countries’ perspectives.
Here is a good NYT review of the book, and here‘s a talk with the author.
More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide. The oil transported through the Malacca Strait from the Indian Ocean, en route to East Asia through the South China Sea, is triple the amount that passes through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal.
The heart of the drama revolves around historic claims to three archipelagoes: the Pratas in the north, the Paracels in the northwest, and the Spratlys in the southeast. The Pratas are claimed by China but controlled by Taiwan. In any case, there is little argument that these are Chinese islands. China and Taiwan actually agree to a significant extent on the South China Sea, except that China does not consider Taiwan a party to the claims because in Beijing’s eyes Taiwan is not a state…The Vietnamese have a strong claim to the Paracels, but the western part of this archipelago has been occupied by China since Beijing took control of it from a failing Saigon government in 1974, near the end of the Vietnam War. The Chinese and Vietnamese have, in fact, solved their disputes in the Gulf of Tonkin: a tribute partly to solidarity between the two countries’ communist parties and their pragmatism…Then there are the Spratlys, which have been claimed by the Philippines only since the 1950s…Unlike the Vietnamese claims to the Paracels, which the Chinese privately respect and worry about, the Chinese don’t respect Philippine designs on the Spratlys. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei all, too, claim features in the Spratlys.
…once the Law of the Sea came into play, China’s cow’s tongue—or historic nine-dashed line—suddenly had little legal meaning or rationale…Well, the Chinese say that they have authentic historic claims, while the Law of the Sea only came into being in 1982, and is therefore only part of the story. (Though China ratified the Law of the Sea treaty in 1996, it does not really adhere to it; whereas the United States adheres to it, but hasn’t ratified it.) In 2009, Chinese officials put out for the first time a map with the nine-dashed line and began interfering with other countries’ survey ships. In 2011, the Chinese made a submission to the United Nations actually making a claim of a full two hundred nautical miles around each of the Spratly Islands.
Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s “principal protagonist” in the South China Sea dispute, asserting sovereignty over both the Paracel and Spratly islands, “based on historical usage dating back to at least the 17th century,” write scholars Clive Scofield and Ian Storey. “If China can break off Vietnam they’ve won the South China Sea,” a top US official told me. “Malaysia is lying low, Brunei has solved its problem with China, Indonesia has no well-defined foreign policy on the subject, the Philippines has few cards to play despite the country’s ingenious boisterousness and incendiary statements, Singapore is capable but lacks size.”
The problem is all sides, with partial exception of Malaysia, are guilty of playing domestic politics with their claims, and by energizing the nationalistic elements in each country, reaching a compromise becomes more difficult.
Asia’s arms race may be one of the most underreported stories in the elite media in decades.
China’s perspective and strategy
However, throughout Beijing, one is inundated with the nostrum, While China only defends, the United States conquers…Hard-liners and soft-liners alike in Beijing—deeply internalizing how China suffered at the hands of Western powers in recent past—see the South China Sea as a domestic issue, as a blue-water extension of China’s territoriality…Indeed, the South China Sea and its environs are China’s near-abroad, where China is reasserting the status quo, having survived the assault upon it by Western powers. But because the United States has come here from half a world away in order to seek continued influence in the South China Sea, it is demonstrably hegemonic.
China understands power, and thus it understands the power of the United States. But it will not tolerate a coalition of smaller powers allied with the United States against it: that, given the Chinese historical experience of the past two hundred years, is unacceptable. As for the nine-dashed line, as one university professor in Beijing told me: sophisticated people in government and in the foreign and defense policy institutes here recognize that there must be some compromise down the road, but they need a political strategy to sell such a compromise to a domestic audience, which harbors deep reservoirs of nationalism.
Andrew F. Krepinevich, president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, believes that the nations of the Western Pacific are slowly being “Finlandized” by China, meaning they will maintain nominal independence but in the end abide by foreign policy rules set by Beijing. He points out that China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) sees U.S. battle networks—“which rely heavily on satellites and the internet to identify targets, coordinate attacks, guide ‘smart bombs’ and more”–as its Achilles’ heel. The Chinese, he goes on, have tested an antisatellite missile in 2007, have reportedly used lasers to temporarily blind U.S. satellites, and have been conducting cyber-attacks on the U.S. military for years. This is in addition to the large numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles and other anti-access/area-denial weaponry that the Chinese have been fielding to undermine U.S. forward bases in Asia.
The aim is not to go to war, but to adjust the disposition of forces so that, as in the case of Taiwan, but writ large across the Western Pacific, the U.S. military increasingly loses credibility as to what It can accomplish. According to Yale professor of management and political science Paul Bracken, China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an “anti-navy” navy, designed to push U.S. sea and air forces away from the East Asian coastline.
The very buildup of military power by China means that paradoxically China can wait and not use force. For as each year passes, China’s naval position strengthens. Beijing’s goal is not war-but an adjustment in the correlation of forces that enhances its geopolitical power and prestige.
Henry C. K. Liu is the deputy director general of Taiwan’s National Security Council…”The longer we survive,” he told me, “the more likely that political changes will happen in mainland China itself.” We can buy time, it is all about playing a weak hand well was what I heard throughout Taipei. In the meantime, Liu said, “we must try our best to maintain the status quo” through creative diplomacy and hard military power. “We can only try, through our own defense capabilities, to make those on the mainland see that the use of military force is unthinkable.”
Vietnam’s view towards China
Explains another Vietnamese diplomat: “China invaded Vietnam seventeen times. The U.S. invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with textbooks full of stories of national heroes who fought China.” The Vietnamese historical hostility to China is, in part, artificially constructed: modern-day Vietnamese emphasize the resistances against medieval and early modern Chinese domination, while downplaying the many centuries of “close emulation” of China and the good relations with it, in order to serve the needs of a strong state identity.
In fact, no foreign policy and security elite in the world struck me as quite so cold-blooded as that of Singapore’s. Example: though the Philippines, like Singapore, is enthusiastic about countering Chinese power, the Filipinos, in the Singaporean view, “are emotional and unstable and thereby make the security situation worse.” The Singaporeans are more comfortable with serious adversaries than they are with unserious friends. One Singaporean summed it up this way: “At the end of the day, it is all about military force and naval presence–it is not about passionate and well-meaning talk.” Typically, everybody I met in the various Singaporean ministries insisted that frank conversations must be off the record: public diplomacy, in their view, is overrated, and is another thing they have no illusions about. “Spider-Man needs a suit to make him strong; we needed an outsized armed forces,” explained a defense official. While Singapore has only 3.3 million citizens, it boasts an air force the same size as Australia’s, whose population is 23 million.