Great Powers, Grand Strategies: The New Game in the South China Sea. Edited by Anders Corr (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland). 2018 Pages 327.
Authors on the South and East China Sea, a subject which has drawn attention of the strategic community for over two decades and is perhaps one of the most important issues in the arena of international relations of contemporary times. The volume details the entire sequence of events as influenced by intricate inter-littoral linkages of the claimant states, the involvement of the lone superpower and other major powers of the world. The book renders a refreshing perspective as the contents are portrayed through the prism of grand strategy. This makes this volume a must read for students of geopolitics and international maritime law. The disparate format of well researched essays provides sufficient overlap of facts with varied interpretations which helps the reader to sharpen perceptions about the contesting claims between China and the ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea (SCS) and Japan in the East China Sea (ECS).
Historically, ‘Great Powers’ have forever endeavored to dominate regions geographically distant, for furthering their strategic pursuits. While US, the sole super power, strives to maintain status quo in East Asia, China the sole challenger is inching towards regional dominance. The security architecture of East Asia or the Eastern Indo Pacific relies heavily on the US which has some of its closest non-NATO allies in the region namely, Japan, South Korea, Philippines and Taiwan.
To satisfy the common reader’s quest, the volume elaborates as to why the SCS is vital not only to the littorals or the US, but to every trading nation of the world. The book addresses this lucidly in its protracted and meaningful discussions contained in the introduction and subsequent narratives. Be it the hydrocarbon reserves, shipping density… heavy movement of oil tankers, busy sea ports, very attractive fishing potential and importantly, the SCS being the sea joining the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.
For China, the control of SCS is a key determinant to its defence, uninterrupted commerce, energy security and above all, regional dominance. A China which was oil sufficient till the early nineties is now the largest importer of oil. The imported oil fuels China’s engine of growth and therefore, proverbially its Achilles heel. China declares exaggerated estimates of the hydrocarbon reserves in the SCS, ranking it to the third highest position after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Whereas, the crude oil estimates made United States Energy Administration Information (AEI) is less than one tenth of China’s estimate and peg the reserves at only three months of China’s hydrocarbon requirement.
The Communist Party of China, its state machinery and the state- run media, all in tandem, harp on ‘‘hundred years of humiliation’’ it has faced in the hands of foreign powers. Actively propagating irredentism, they indulge in shaping domestic opinion to galvanize its citizens in support of territorial claims in the SCS and ECS. Flexing its financial muscle, China made heavy regional investments. Thereafter, by manipulating the weaker regional economies, using debt as a leverage and manipulation, China deftly created fissures within the ASEAN to the detriment of their unity. As a result, China eliminated a united opposition and extracted favourable outcomes and decisions from ASEAN on issues related to the SCS.
Over the years, an emboldened China mastered the art of weighing, sensing and assessing muted US response not only in the SCS, ECS but also in other parts of the world. Apart from islands, China has claimed strategically located rocks, reefs and shoal
incapable of sustaining human life within the U-shaped line commonly referred to as the nine-dash line which covers roughly eighty percent of the SCS. China went a step further to claim Exclusive Economic Zones around the occupied features with total disregard to the provisions laid down in the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). Ostensibly, these claims were made to restore historical ownership of China albeit on the basis of manufactured cartographic evidence.
China’s so called ‘peaceful rise’ drew global attention close to the heels of President Obama’s declaration of ‘US pivot to Asia’ ala ‘rebalancing’ in November 2011. China brazenly bullied Philippines and occupied Scarborough Shoals in April 2012 as if to challenge the US. If that was not enough, China made its intention clear by declaring a controversial Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in 2013 which overlapped with ADIZ of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Unwittingly, the SCS tussle soon catapulted from being a purely Sino-ASEAN issue into a Sino-US/Japan issue. The US signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Philippines in April 2014. This did not deter China from its massive reclamation drive and continued to create artificial islands particularly in the Spratly group and “militarized seven features” in all at an unprecedented speed and scale.
Artificial islands established by China serve as mid sea logistic cum turn around nodes for PLA’s maritime forces and further its power projection capability and Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) within the SCS and beyond. These artificial islands have adequate integral defenses and obliquely present attributes of a static aircraft carrier (“Zero PIM” in naval parlance). With runways in these islands capable of operating all types of aircraft bolstered by air to air refuellers for enhanced endurance and radii of operation gives China a huge advantage over the littorals. However, China is aware, that in case of a conflict with the US these islands would unquestionably be destroyed, despite their integral defenses / combat air patrols. Therefore, China orchestrates and wages, a hybrid war in the ‘gray zone’, craftily eliminating a casus belli for a full scale confrontation with the US. China achieve this by employing swarms of marine militia supported by their coast guard with a nuanced command and control.
The volume deliberates on the US ‘Pivot to Asia’, its world view and whether it changed matters in the SCS. Inadequacies in the degree of U.S response was palpable as weighed down by extensive economic linkages with China and strain on resources due to engagements in the Gulf, West Asia and other parts of the world. At the same time, infirmities of established international systems were exposed. China remained unphased and rejected the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016 of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Scarborough Shoals which ruled in favour of Philippines. The PCA based its judgement on reliable documentary evidence and provisions of the UNCLOS and rejected China’s historical claims.
China undertook military reforms, focused on acquiring force multipliers with its relatively high defence spending in terms of purchasing power parity. China demonstrated the reach of the PLA (Navy) ever since it announced its participation in the Gulf of Aden anti- piracy patrol in December 2008. Within a few years, it displayed blue water capability and ability to conduct aircraft carrier operations. China is acutely aware of a relatively lower degree of versatility and sophistication of its indigenous platforms and weapon systems vis-a`-vis US. To offset this weakness with higher numbers, China gave a major thrust to warship and submarine construction and went on to export them to its Asian clients to increase its footprint and strategic grip on the client states.
China wants the PLA (Navy) to be ranked among the “top three in the world by 2049”. In “another five years”, China could attain the threshold of military might that could make the cost of a conventional armed conflict with China unviable for the US with or without tacit support from Russia which shares a common goal to “mitigate the perceived US hegemony”. China believes that the road to its super power status lies in dominating the seas up to the Third Island Chain in the Pacific as envisioned by Liu Huaqing and set right the menace of the current unipolar world. Biding its time, China senses that it could soon become economically prohibitive for the US to deploy adequate forces permanently in East Asia, to maintain the desired superiority in the long run.
As an export-oriented economy which thrives on manufacturing leveraged by economies of scale, China continues to spread its tentacles globally embellished by Xi Jinping’s signature ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR) and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiatives. The former a land- based trade conduit through Asia terminating at Europe and the latter a sea route connecting the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe. Much is talked about China’s overseas strategic support bases also known as “string of pearls” in the Indo-Pacific. These serve to hedge Hu Jintao’s, ‘’Malacca Dilemma” but more specifically, support China’s maritime trade, sustain PLA (Navy) operations and to provide MDA.
The fact that the US has not ratified the UNCLOS to a large extent takes away its moral authority to meddle on international maritime issues thereby providing China the latitude to progress its territorial claims and regional domination. Instead of opposing China’s territorial claims in the SCS and ECS, the US now can only legitimately demand and involve itself to uphold Freedom of Navigation and provide assurance to safeguard its regional allies. Only time will tell whether the US would go the harm’s way to defend its allies in East Asia against China.
Japan is alarmed by China’s assertive claims, maritime incursions in the Senkaku Island in the ECS and the brinkmanship displayed by the North Korean leadership. Perceiving China as its primary military threat, it realizes that it could have to respond militarily alongside the US and in a worst-case scenario defend itself alone. The ‘spirit of Japan’, its intrinsic technological prowess and reformed defence policy, could make a military conflict with Japan unviable for China in the not so distant future. It is felt that If Japan and South Korea were to bury the hatchet as an existential measure, it could change matters. The combine could vigorously contribute to capacity building of Vietnam. As stake holders who directly face the wrath of China’s regional dominance, they have all the reasons to oppose in unison and that could add to China’s worries.
Consequentially, this sub-regional trio would have to face substantial adverse trade impact from China. Easily said than done, they would have to gradually seek alternate trade destinations including redistribution among themselves. A subsequent inclusion of Taiwan in this group would deliver a severe blow to the dragon’s “one China policy”. Whether such a regional combination could gather momentum, is certainly food for thought. This trio could well be supported from the periphery by another trio consisting of US, Australia and India and other like-minded nations. This is a construct which is at variance from the oft proposed QUAD.
Strangely, China, an aspiring great power, remained unperturbed by adverse regional and international impact on its soft power quotient due its actions in the SCS. This volume was published in 2018. However, the compilation assumes greater significance in the present-day context as some striking parallels could be drawn in the attitude of the Chinese leadership shrouded behind the bamboo curtain. Today, the world faces an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, a contagion which is causing colossal loss of lives and a sudden downward spiral and free fall of the global economy with minimum impact on China.
The COVID-19 pandemic rated as the worst calamity faced by humanity since the Second Great War, is likely to expose China’s failure as a responsible power on several counts; especially for not providing early warning to the rest of the world…. unless it was intentional. This will certainly expose China’s opacity and wipe out China’s soft power quotient. Introducing many human behavioral changes, the pandemic has created fertile grounds for formation of new alliances among nations who hold China responsible for the unacceptable tragic loss of many lives of their citizens. It is expected that China will eventually offer economic largesse to the weaker economies to build favourable consensus and salvage its image. However, impact of COVID-19 would be etched for generations to remember and may result in economic distancing by the others which could hurt China slowly but surely. A new edition of the book with more maps and illustrations would complement the rich content and make the book much more attractive.
(Vice-Admiral Pradeep K. Chatterjee , former deputy chief of Indian navy, headed India’s first tri-services command in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands)
(Anders Corr has a chequered career in the US military as head of its social science research unit. He now heads Corr Analytics and edits the Journal of Political Risk)