China As A Regional Hegemon In The South China Sea – OpEd


China’s hegemonic tendencies are becoming an apparent state of being in the South China Sea (SCS). The unilaterally provoked dispute involves many of the maritime members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping and has caused significant concerns all over the world. 

China is the only country that used military force to occupy the Paracel Islands, which are known as Xisha Islands in China, in the SCS from South Vietnam in 1974. It also forcibly seized control of the Johnson South Reef from Vietnam in 1988.

Based on a controversial map called Nine-Dashed Line map, China claims more than 90 percent of the SCS. 

These claims stake their account into nearly the entire SCS and encompasses the exclusive economic zones (EEZs), territorial waters and in some cases even physical boundaries of other nations. 

Countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam and Philippines have had serious apprehension upon China’s illegally claimed nine-dash-line, which intrudes in to their own geographical territories. 

Indonesia, the de facto leader of the ASEAN and a member of the G20, is not a claimant country in the SCS disputes but China claims a portion of its EEZ in the North Natuna Sea (NNS) as part of the Nine-Dashed Line map.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled in 2016 that the Nine-Dashed Line map was legally invalid and there was no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the SCS. The map was also not in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). China and all the ASEAN claimant countries have signed the UNCLOS.

This dispute has also led to many escalations and stand-offs involving the maritime countries around the disputed area. 

China on the contrary has built several artificial islands over 3,200 acres of artificial landmass and has completely militarized at least three of its artificially constructed islands in the disputed waters.

China’s ambitions for regional hegemony are also driven by its aspirations to capture the abundant natural resources as well as strategically secure for itself all the vital trade and security maritime routes. 

China’s claims in the SCS are primarily based on historical assertions and vague demarcation line drawn on maps by the Communist Party of China (CPC) in its quest to deter other neighbouring nations. 

The CPC’s hegemonic ambitions have also led the country to assert its regional hegemony through various means, including military assertiveness, island-building, and diplomatic posturing.

A unilateral action that has come under the most amount of criticism and has received widespread international attention is the construction of artificial islands in the SCS, particularly in the Spratly Islands or Nansha Qundao in Chinese. 

China has falsely claimed land and built military facilities while also establishing airstrips on these islands, effectively expanding its presence and asserting control over the surrounding waters. Such actions have also raised concerns among neighboring countries and have been seen as an attempt to change the status quo and strengthen China’s territorial claims. 

The Paracel and Spratly islands for instance have significantly enhanced Chinese offensive capabilities and has extended its EEZ beyond its own mainland shores.

The CPC has also employed its naval and coast guard forces to assert its presence and challenge the activities of other claimant states in the region mostly with the Philippines which has in its own capacity stood up to the hegemonic tendencies of China. 

There have been numerous incidents of Chinese vessels harassing fishing boats of the Philippines and Vietnam, conducting military drills, and intimidating foreign ships and aircraft in disputed areas. This assertiveness has led to heightened tensions and occasional clashes between China and other countries. 

Most recently, the Philippines military claimed that the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris that the Filipino navy had recovered from the SCS near the Thithu Island. In order to subvert the issue, Chinese officials had claimed that no such seizure was conducted. Such cover ups are testimony to China’s espionage tactics that it has had a history of deploying especially in sensitive regions. 

Chinese maritime forces have also been notorious in igniting conflicts with their Filipino counterparts by regularly harassing fishing boats and fishermen from Philippines over the unilaterally invoked disputed region. 

The Chinese navy have also been blockading supplies dispatched for Philippines outposts in the sea.

Moreover, over and above such military actions, the CPC has also pursued diplomatic strategies to advance its interests in the disputed region. It has engaged in bilateral negotiations with individual claimant states, offering economic incentives and investments in exchange for concessions leading many to believe that the CPC is offering compensation for its territory grabbing techniques to soften the blow. 

China has also attempted to divide regional unity by engaging in “divide and conquer” tactics, as some countries in the region have competing territorial claims and varying levels of economic dependence on China.

In ASEAN, China has its close friends like Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Through these countries, China has been trying to divide ASEAN on the issue of the SCS.

China’s growing economic power and influence in the region have further strengthened its position of subverting countries into enacting policies in Beijing’s interests. Initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Global Security Initiative (GSI) have also deepened economic and security ties with countries in region and beyond, gaining leverage and potentially influencing their policies regarding the contentious issue. 

Therefore, it becomes all the more important that countries realise that economic benefits come at a very significant cost of trading off their sovereign decision-making autonomy regarding vital issues such as the SCS dispute. 

The Chinese state through the dictates enforced by the CPC in its attempt to rise as the single most dominant hegemon is on a path of infringing upon very basic principle of sovereignty which is to respect the boundaries of other nations. 

In the larger interest of the global community, Chinese tactics that are meant to subvert sovereign powers from growing must be prevented and tackled with utmost caution so as to avoid a full blown conflict in the region.

Veeramalla Anjaiah

Veeramalla Anjaiah is a Jakarta-based senior journalist and the author of the book “Azerbaijan Seen from Indonesia

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