The South China Sea: Regional Struggle of Global Proportions
By MSG Christopher S. Patel
China has a containment problem. Or to be more accurate, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has numerous physical and geopolitical containment constraints that impede their ambitious goals of becoming a global economic superpower and the preeminent regional military power. The First Island Chain, an approximate line of large and small islands that starts in peninsular Southeast Asia and then runs north through the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan (Kouretsos, 2019), is the first and most evident of these physical and geopolitical constraints. The CCP has ambitions of reclaiming Taiwan to break through part of this physical containment to their east, but that is only one small part of this containment problem. No single containment issue confronting the CCP better encapsulates physical and geopolitical constraints than the South China Sea. The CCP has conflicting maritime claims with six other governments within the South China Sea, courtesy of their Nine Dashed Line claim (Beech, 2016). The CCP has engaged in small-scale military conflict to press its claims and seeks to defend the Nine Dashed Line claim on a near constant basis, including during in an international tribunal, which it lost (Jakhar, 2021). This fact has not stopped the CCP from actively militarizing the vastly important body of water; the CCP is currently taking dramatic steps to back its claim on the South China Sea, from using naval vessels to intimidate fishing vessels from other countries to creating manmade military bases on top of reefs and tiny atolls. The CCP is going to such lengths because the South China Sea is arguably the most important maritime area in the region. It is a major shipping thoroughfare, with approximately one-third of the world's ocean-going shipping transiting annually (Cordesman et al., 2019). It is rich in fishing grounds, an essential natural resource for any country as populous as China. It is also rich in oil and natural gas, neither of which China can produce in enough quantities domestically to meet its consumption demands. And critically, it leads to the Strait of Malacca, a regional shipping choke point not just for
maritime trade but for most of China's energy imports (RealLifeLore, 2022). The CCP understands these constraints to its ambitions and will take dramatic steps to overcome them, well beyond the provocative and confrontational steps it has already taken. The aggressive actions by the CCP, combined with the multi-national competition for natural resources, potential choke points for global shipping, and overlapping maritime claims, make the South China Sea one of the world's biggest flashpoints for potential conflict, with global ramifications not seen since World War II.
Natural Resources and Naval Dominance in the South China Sea
China has a domestic oil and gas production problem: It does not produce enough domestically to support its economy. Not nearly enough. That does not make sense, considering that China is the sixth largest oil producer in the world, on par with Iraq. The most significant contributing factor is that China is also the worlds largest energy consumer, accounting for 25% annually of all energy consumption by global humanity. A predictable result is that China heavily depends on imports for its energy needs. The South China Sea has proven and provable reserves of sixteen to thirty-three billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (Lieser, 2021). Unfortunately for the CCP, most of those energy reserves are within the economic exclusion zones (EEZs) of other nations, in other words, in territory well outside of the contested waters of the Nine Dash Line claim. Given the CCPs historical trend of resorting to violence, there is concern that the Nine Dash Line could serve as a starting point for larger territorial claims. These concerns include territory well beyond any historical precedence the CCP can claim. Limited oil and gas potential notwithstanding, the CCP has taken the fishing potential of the South China Sea in a very different direction, at least publicly.
Since 1999, the CCP has been unilaterally and aggressively enforcing an annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea, lasting roughly three and a half months every year (Maulaya,
2022). This moratorium significantly impacts the other countries that depend on fish from the South China Sea. The South China Sea is arguably the most over-fished sea in the world, or perhaps second only to the Mediterranean Sea. There are approximately 190 million people that live in the coastal areas surrounding the South China Sea. Approximately 77% of those people depend on fish from the South China Sea for their livelihoods and daily protein needs, resulting in 12% of all fish caught in the world coming from the South China Sea (Maulaya, 2022). This demand for food, combined with climate change, creates intense fishing competition and a significant depletion of fishery stocks in the South China Sea, with whole fisheries collapsing and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing contributing to the overall fish shortage (Maulaya, 2022). With these factors in mind, a ban on fishing during the summer months seems necessary to preserve South China Sea fisheries. However, some accounts of the Chinese fishing ban paint a more sinister picture of an increasingly militaristic Chinese coast guard sinking fishing ships, violating internationally recognized borders, and allowing Chinese fishing vessels to ply their trade unmolested during the supposed moratorium timeframe (Maulaya, 2022).
Moreover, and perhaps more ominously, this unilateral fishing ban that operates under the auspices of conservation also doubles as a convenient excuse for China to extend its military presence in the South China Sea and attempt to validate its internationally unrecognized Nine Dash Line claim (Jakhar, 2021). Chinese control of the South China Sea would also place the CCP in a powerful position regarding global Maritime shipping. More than 3.5 trillion dollars' worth of global trade flows through the South China Sea via the Strait of Malacca, the CCPs Achilles' heel.
The Strait of Malacca and Global Shipping
China has a problem with the Strait of Malacca: the CCP is heavily dependent on it staying open. Even by conservative estimates, 3.5 trillion dollars in trade flows through the Strait
of Malacca every year, a significant portion of the total trade flowing through the South China Sea (RealLifeLore, 2022). This trade is vital to the CCP for two reasons: first is that the CCP spent years successfully turning China into the factory of the world, exporting cheap goods and rapidly transforming the Chinese economy from something of a backwater into the second biggest economy in the world (Cordesman et al., 2019). A significant portion of these exports flows from China to the rest of the world through the Strait of Malacca. Second, this artery of economic power is vital to the Chinese economy due to the sheer volume of energy imports that transit the Strait of Malacca and literally power the Chinese economy.
Over one-third of all the world's traded liquid natural gas (LNG) transits through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea. Over 15 million barrels of oil also journey through this area daily. These figures account for virtually all of China's LNG imports and approximately 80% of China's imported oil, or more than 75% of their domestic oil consumption (RealLifeLore, 2022). In the event of hostilities in the South China Sea between the CCP and any of the parties with which they have conflicting claims (The Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia are the most likely, based on historical conflicts), then a blockade of the Strait of Malacca could deprive CCP naval forces of vital oil imports they need to keep functioning. Nevertheless, this would not have an immediate impact. The CCP is keenly aware of the problem that the Strait of Malacca represents as a strategic choke point and maintains one of the world's largest strategic oil reserves. While exact numbers are hard to calculate, one estimate indicates that this strategic reserve will allow China to run for roughly 90 days with the Strait of Malacca blockaded (RealLifeLore, 2022). Historically speaking, this is not enough time to fight and win a large-scale military conflict, especially one involving significant naval operations. The CCP is also aware of this and is actively working on new infrastructure to import cheap Russian oil and gas over land routes. They are also actively working to stack the deck in their favor by building up
additional overland energy import capability through Central Asia, and preemptively militarizing the South China Sea by creating manmade island military bases.
Transforming Reefs to Military Strongpoints
In the South China Sea, the CCP has a strategic vulnerability problem. In recognition of their vulnerability to a naval blockade of the Strait of Malacca and under the guise of enforcing a seasonal fishing moratorium, the CCP has reclaimed a staggering amount of land within the Parcel and Spratly Islands (Friedman et al., 2017). As early as 2016, the estimate of artificial landmasses created in the Spratly Islands alone was over 3,200 acres spread over seven different reefs. These artificial landmasses serve as man-made military bases. Collectively, they provide a barracks capability for not less than 200 soldiers, large anti-aircraft guns, numerous helipads, long runways, hangars large enough to accommodate dozens of aircraft, radar sites, bunkers, and deep-water harbors capable of supporting every naval ship the CCP possess (Friedman et al., 2017). This ongoing facility creation significantly extends Chinese military power into territory most generously described as disputed. The situation is similar further north in the Parcel Islands.
The Parcel Islands are also heavily militarized. Eight of those islands have a Chinese military force of some kind. The exact disposition of these forces is unclear, but at least six of those islands are home to radar capabilities. Woody Island in the Parcels has one of the most extensive Chinese presences on any South China Sea island, both military and civilian. The garrison on Woody Island consists of an estimated 1,400 soldiers, and the facility boasts mid-range surface-to-air missiles, runways, hangars capable of supporting third and fourth-generation fighter jets, helipads, and extensive radar facilities (Friedman et al., 2017). The Chinese government also allows civilian charter flights to Woody Island (Friedman et al., 2017). This Chinese tourism is an overt attempt to normalize Chinese presence by treating these disputed islands like they are already part of China, and raising the specter of civilian casualties as a
strategic deterrent to any military response to the CCP presence in these disputed islands. These islands represent only part of a much larger strategy that spans the entirety of the South China Sea, including building islands on reefs that are indisputably in other nations' territorial waters (Friedman et al., 2017).
The extensive militarization of these islands is a transparent attempt to assert military control over disputed territories and discourage complaining from smaller, less confrontational countries. This provocative and deliberate strategy by the CCP creates regional conflict and garners the international community's attention, which has no desire to see a repeat of past conflicts or disruption to one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world (RealLifeLore, 2022).
Past Conflict and Global Community Intervention
China has an attachment problem. More specifically, the CCP has an attachment to the South China Sea that it will go to war over. Numerous times in modern history, China entered into small-scale conflicts with both Vietnam and the Philippines over conflicting South China Sea claims (Maulaya, 2022). Luckily for the two smaller nations, the conflicts did not boil over into all-out war (the largely unrelated Chinese-Vietnamese war notwithstanding), but that has not stopped aggressive Chinese naval actions. These actions include the ongoing militarization of Subi Reef (Friedman et al., 2017), which is well within the Philippines EEZ, the globally recognized standard set by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and supported by a 2016 international arbitration tribunal at the Hague (Jakhar, 2018). The ruling in July of 2016 stated that there was no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control historically over the vital waterway (Jakhar, 2018), invalidating China's "Nine Dashed Line" claim. This tribunal is just one instance of global intervention that the CCP agrees to participate in, implying that they will abide by the outcomes of these interventions. But instead of complying with the tribunal, they incessantly build artificial islands over reefs in waters that the global community
agrees do not belong to China. Moreover, the CCP continues to grow their naval shipbuilding capacity becoming, with an estimated 355 ships, the largest navy in the world. Furthermore, the CCP is unceasingly building upon their current naval capability, with a probable goal of 450 ships by 2030 (Harper, 2020). The most significant deterrent to all-out war from the CCP in the South China Sea remains the consistent United States (U.S.) Navy presence. The CCP can technically field more ships, but the U.S. Navy is the global standard, and the CCP knows it. The CCP also knows that it cannot directly confront the U.S. until it has a true overmatch in capability, something they are working rapidly to create. The only thing keeping the CCP from pursuing a more aggressive strategy in the South China Sea, is their stated position that Taiwan is a breakaway part of China, and that they are considering forcing a reunification militarily (RealLifeLore, 2022). The CCP views Taiwanese reunification as the more pressing issue. After they conclude forceful reunification with Taiwan, a process that would require one way or another, the removal of the U.S. Navy as a major power in the region, pressing their strategy in the South China Sea will be much easier for the CCP. And without the U.S. Navy, the global community is not currently able to contest the CCPs South China Sea strategy with anything other than diplomatic and token economic pressure.
The aggressive actions by the CCP, combined with the multi-national competition for natural resources, potential choke points for global shipping, and overlapping maritime claims, make the South China Sea one of the world's biggest flashpoints for potential conflict, with global ramifications not seen since World War II. The issue of containment is one that the CCPs economic and military ambitions demand that it confronts, and soon. Gaining dominance over Taiwan is only part of that problem. The South China Sea is the primary geopolitical and physical containment measure that the CCP must address as a matter of economic prudence and
ambitions of regional military dominance. This mindset is doubly true for the CCP when considering its need for oil and gas import security. This regional conflict over the South China Sea will fuel competition for natural resources, particularly the all-important fisheries, which will drive the smaller involved nations closer to conflict out of sheer desperation. The increasingly belligerent strategies of the CCP, including the aggressive militarization of reefs and artificial islands, demands the attention of global powers vested in the region's stability. Unfortunately, their attempts to stabilize the South China Sea are more likely to increase the volatility, adding more military power to an already overly militarily-centric problem. Demilitarization of the South China Sea forces all aggrieved parties to settle their differences diplomatically. However, the significant investment the CCP has made in militarizing the region is in and of itself too much to allow them to walk away. The CCP has committed to taking every nautical mile of the territory they claim with their Nine Dash Line position and will not back down. The CCP will first rely on their current strategy of island militarization to position themselves as unassailable in the South China Sea. If that fails, they will not hesitate to push any nation that challenges them to the brink of war, counting on their growing naval capability to help them deter all-out war, or prevail in any military conflict, eventually dominating the South China Sea.
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About the author:
Master Sergeant Christopher Patel is a Military Intelligence Senior Sergeant who has deployed numerous times in support of Operational Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn and has held positions at the tactical and joint levels. He is currently attending the Sergeants Major Course at the U.S. Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence at Fort Bliss, TX.
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