Why China absolutely needs the South China Sea for itself alone:a prospective and independent view from outside, by Daniel Schaeffer

Wednesday, 14 December 2011 03:25 quanghung299

Mister president, ladies and gentlemen,

All my thanks to the organisers of this 3rd international workshop on “The South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development” for inviting me to express myself on the following topic: "Why China absolutely needs the South China sea for itself alone”

This presentation is a prospective view and a completely independent one. I stress upon that. It is based on the analysis of different pieces of information I gathered not only on the situation in the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea, and even in the near area of the Pacific Ocean. This paper, too, is a near repeat of what I introduced, in Taipei, on the 7th of October, on the occasion of the international conference organised by the Institute of European and American Studies of the Academia Sinica, on Major Law and Policy Issues in the South China Sea:European and American Perspectives


Because of the aggressiveness China recently showed in defending what it considers as its legitimate rights in the South China Sea according to the nine dashed line principle, as for example by cutting the Vietnamese ships’ seismic survey cables on the 26th of May and on the 9th of June, or by pressuring the Indian oil company ONGC Videsh not to operate with Petrovietnam on two blocks off the Vietnamese coast but astride the nine dashed line, all such incidents being related by the international press, everybody in the World believes that this Chinese assertiveness is based on economical reasons only.

Because every year China unilaterally imposes a moratorium on fishing activities in the disputed areas of the South China Sea, a decision which is relayed by the international press, everybody in the World believes that this Chinese assertiveness is based on economical and environmental reasons only.

All these obvious reasons are not, of course, groundless. They are genuine ones. But they above all are the front reasons which are hiding far deeper Chinese intents and interests. These intents and interests are above all related to the Chinese defense posture facing what China considers to be the US containment against it, if not the US threat. In such a consideration, the South China Sea is no more than one piece, an important one certainly, but only one piece however in the general defense scheme China is building to put in check a presumed US threat. This Chinese general defense scheme is based on three stages:

1 – ensuring for the Chinese navy the full secure freedom of navigation all over the South China sea, especially for its strategic submarines (SSBNs)[1], without any other foreign navy interfering by sailing over the basin. It is the main reason why, in order to fulfill its strategic purposes, China absolutely wants to make the South China Sea a sanctuary. This explains why China is so keen in wanting the US Navy not to continue coming across this maritime area any more.

2 – recovering Taiwan so as to enjoy full free genuine territorial waters for its ships may sail freely to the high sea, at least during peace time, or even on the occasion of low intensity crises, or even more as the second cold war seems to begin appearing. War is another question because on such a kind of situation all the principles laid by the UNCLOS concerning countries’ governances over maritime areas adjacent to their coasts are blown up because the operational considerations and needs may prevail without any other considerations.

3 – forwarding its strategic submarines at missile range of the US coasts, including Hawaï at first.

To demonstrate these hypotheses, I departed from three facts:

1 – the first one is that China-US relations are not confident at all. Mistrust between the two countries could be the master word, even if both are trying to do their utmost to keep a kind of dialogue, including in the field of defence so as to avoid incidents that could degenerate into clashes.

2 – The second one is that it is quite normal that any country in the World wants to ensure its defence as best as possible. However, it may happen that the defensive concerns may become aggressive towards the neighbours because the concerned country feels itself obstructed in the implementation of the general scheme it has elaborated to organise its defence.

This is right the case for China which, beyond the exchanges of courteous visits, good occasional words, considers the USA as a potential hostile party as well as the USA is not confident at all in a future Chinese peaceful behaviour.

3 – The third point is that, except North Korea, all the neighbouring countries of the two China seas are deeply concerned by the Chinese rising military power.

Japanjust recently expressed it, in measured words, in the yearly white paper on its defence, disseminated on the 2nd of August, as it is noticeable in the following abstracts: “in regards to the issues on conflicting interest with the surrounding countries, including Japan, China’s response has been criticized as assertive, and there is a concern over its future direction”. “China has been expanding and intensifying its activities in its surrounding waters. Lack of transparency in its national defence policies, and its military activities are referred to as a matter of concern for the region and the international community, including Japan, which should require prudent analysis”. But, because of such writings, China considers that Japan is spreading the “Chinese threat theory”. For that, the Japanese white book was greeted with a strong but expected rebuff from China on the 4th of August.

South Eastern countries, because of the conflicting territorial interests existing in the South China Sea, are afraid that China wants to impose its own solutions by force to solve the problem in order to satisfy its own interests only. The countries directly involved in the dispute as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei or those which feel genuinely concerned as Indonesia and Singapore are trying to resist the Chinese hegemonic ambitions by seeking peaceful solutions to the situation without giving up their own, even sometimes conflicting, interests. Such a situation helps to create a division between the South East Asian countries involved, a division from which China is trying to draw profit. And it partly succeeds in that since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, even if they do not disapprove their other partners in their confrontation with China, stay mute on the question of the South China Sea because they do not want to displease China.

In such conditions one of the problems that make the South East Asian nations feel not quite so easy is that, if on one hand China is aggressively defending what it considers it sovereign rights in the South China sea, on the other hand it is meanwhile forwarding apparently peaceful proposals. Among them, as professor Su Hao demonstrated it in Ho Chi Minh City in November 2010, are Chinese proposals for huge multifarious common economical development schemes, among them the Nanning– Singapore corridor development, Greater Mekong Subregional cooperationprogramme, the Pan-Beibu Gulf Economic Cooperation, all promoted to make the South China sea a lake of harmony. All these programmes genuinely sound interesting. But behind them is lying the Chinese will to bind the different countries involved to China the same way as, in the imperial era, some of them were vassals of the emperors of the Kingdom of the Middle. We might call that the Kingdom of the Middle syndrome.



Read full text of this paper here

[1]Submersible Ship Ballistic missile Nuclear powered.


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