The South China Sea, its history and role in international politics examined by 12 experts in Great Powers, Grand Strategies

Retired US naval officers, university professors, think-tank scholars, and Asia experts examine China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and their current and future geopolitical impact, and hope prudence and wisdom prevail

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 February, 2018, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 February, 2018, 7:38pm

Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea

edited by Anders Corr

Naval Institute Press

3.5/5 stars

The South China Sea, notes Bernard Cole, a former US Navy captain who also taught maritime strategy at the National War College, covers four million square kilometres, has significant energy resources, and contains trade arteries through which one-third of the world’s commerce transits.

Its geographic location astride the Southeast Asian littoral makes it the maritime gateway between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire sea and conflicting claims by other countries in the region make the South China Sea a geopolitical flashpoint and potential scene of military conflict among regional and global powers.

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Cole is one of 12 contributors to Great Powers, Grand Strategies, a new book published by the US Naval Institute Press that offers historical, regional, and global perspectives on the significance of the South China Sea to 21st century international politics. The other contributors are a mix of retired US naval officers, university professors, think-tank scholars, and Asia experts, including one from Japan and one from Australia.

In separate but complementary essays, Bill Hayton, Ian Forsyth and James Fanell attempt to explain the motivations and strategies behind China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. Some contemporary Chinese officials and scholars, including President Xi Jinping, claim that China’s sovereignty over the area extends back to “ancient times”, while others date Chinese rule to the Ming dynasty in the 15th century and the voyages of Admiral Zheng He.

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Independent historians, Hayton notes, have “demolished” those narratives. “The evidence we have,” Hayton writes, “suggests that the South China Sea was an ungoverned space, a realm of semi-nomadic fisherfolk, sea gypsies, and pirates, until the beginning of the twentieth century”.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the Republic of China asserted various claims over reefs and islands in the South China Sea, including the Paracels and Spratlys. The ROC occupied and garrisoned Itu Aba island in the Spratlys between 1946 and 1950, then – having fled mainland China for Taiwan – reoccupied it six years later.

After the communists gained power in mainland China in October 1949, a new narrative was invented to justify expansion – the “Century of Humiliation” from the opium wars to the communist victory in the civil war was over. China would now reclaim its rightful place as the “middle kingdom”, the centre of the world.

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Between 1988 and 1995, China occupied seven reefs in the Spratlys, but it only began to transform the reefs into islands capable of supporting military facilities in 2013. In 2009, it had issued a map with nine dashes showing its claim to sovereignty over a U-shaped area that encompasses virtually the entire sea.

While China constructed air and naval facilities on the new islands, it also repeatedly confronted rival claimants, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, at sea, and ignored or flouted international compacts and international law.

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Forsyth points out that if one of China’s goals was to lessen US influence in the region, its aggressive moves in the South China Sea have produced the opposite effect. Several smaller powers in the region have out of necessity turned to the US to balance growing Chinese power.

Another consequence of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, notes Leszek Buszynski, has been increased divisions within Asean. The individual member nations have reacted to China’s moves based on their narrow self-interest. Some, like Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia, have moved closer to the US and Japan. Others, like Laos and Cambodia, have sided with China.

Sean Liedman and Tongfi Kim, respectively, examine the evolution of US strategy in the South China Sea and the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. US grand strategy toward China since the end of the second world war, Liedman writes, has shifted from “containment” to “cooperative engagement” to “competition”.

With respect to the South China Sea, the US has sought to protect freedom of navigation and overflight by all countries, support its alliances and security commitments with other powers in the region, promote effective regional institutions such as Asean, and maintain the liberal international order – and America’s leading role therein – that developed in the wake of the second world war.

Kim explores the Obama administration’s diplomatic, economic, and military rebalancing towards Asia, which developments in the South China Sea accelerated. He notes that the economic importance of the Asia-Pacific, however, was the driving force behind the rebalance.

The book’s editor, Anders Corr, writes in his introduction that China does not seek war with the United States. Instead, it is pursuing a “take and talk” strategy in the South China Sea that has so far been successful.

China’s immediate goal, he believes, is to construct a “sphere of influence” in East Asia and the Pacific Rim that would rival Japan’s 1938 Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere or the United States’ Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean Sea and Latin America. That is a sobering thought.

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The authors featured in this book are not alarmists. None of the essays foresees the likelihood of a great power war between China and the US. But the trend of events, especially in the South China Sea, indicates that we are entering an era where great power competition will overshadow great power engagement.

It is a time for prudence, wisdom, and careful statecraft from both China and the United States.