By Anubha Rastogi*
According to Alfred Thayer Mahan, a 19th century American strategist, the concept of sea power was based on the idea that countries with greater naval power will have greater worldwide impact. This concept had enormous influence in shaping strategic thought of navies around the world. The nation that controlled the seas held the upper hand in modern warfare.
The last decade has witnessed this transformation of the global maritime security environment. It is driven among other things by the diffusion of maritime power, great power competition, the “territorialisation” of the seas, the rise of maritime non-state actors, changes in maritime geography, and a race to extract maritime resources. This new maritime security environment is simultaneously more connected and more contested, in which developments in faraway maritime regions reverberate around the world, and where national rivalries and resource competition threaten to encroach on the international freedom of navigation. This has taken the form of conflicts between major maritime powers in the last few years. Disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea are examples.
China’s growing assertiveness in South China Sea has been a matter of concern to its neighbours. The strategic importance of the South China Sea is mainly due to its geographical location as the area is one of world’s busiest and most strategic shipping lanes. More than 50% of world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait over the islands and waters of the South China Sea. More importantly, it also covers the most crucial energy routes for East Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea to transport oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf.
Several countries in the area, including China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, make overlapping sovereignty claims over the islands and maritime rights in the South China Sea. The key elements of the disputes are conflicting claims over the Paracels by China and Vietnam, the Scarborough Reef by China and the Philippines, the Spratlys by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and over the Exclusive Economic Zone by China, Vietnam and Indonesia. Taiwan has also joined the ‘sovereignty claim battle’ over the South China Sea.
China has been moving sand onto reefs and shoals to add several new islands to the Spratly archipelago, in what foreign officials said was a new effort to expand the Chinese footprint in the South China Sea. The island-building had alarmed Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations that also claim sovereignty over Spratly. Critics have said that islands would allow China to install better surveillance technology and resupply stations for government vessels. Some analysts said the Chinese military was eyeing a perch in Spratly as part of a long-term strategy of power projection across Western pacific. Since 2014, China has been building islands, projected to be 20-40 acres each. They added that there appeared to be at least one installation intended for military use, and that the new islands could be used for re-supplying ships, including Chinese maritime patrol vessels.
The dispute in the East China Sea between China and Japan over Senkaku islands is another example of China’s rising assertive-posture. The islands are economically significant as they have potential oil and natural gas reserves, are near prominent shipping routes, and are surrounded by rich fishing areas. Each country claims to have economic rights in an exclusive economic zone of two hundred nautical miles.
Discussions between Japan and China to develop a crisis management tool, known as a bilateral consultative mechanism, began in 2012. Talks stalled when tensions peaked in 2013 after China declared the establishment of an air defence identification zone. In April 2014, President Barack Obama became the first US president to explicitly state that the disputed islands were covered by the US-Japan Security Treaty. An accidental military incident or political miscalculation by China or Japan could embroil the US in armed hostilities with China.
Japan and China signed a four-point consensus document laying out their differences concerning the disputed islands on 7 November 2014. First, both sides confirmed that they would continue to develop a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. Second, following the spirit of squarely facing history and advancing toward the future, they would overcome political difficulties that affect their bilateral relations. Third, both sides recognised that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in East China Sea, and shared the view that, through dialogue and consultation, they would prevent the deterioration of the situation, establish a crisis management mechanism and avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances. Fourth, both sides said that, by utilising various multilateral and bilateral channels, they would gradually resume dialogue in political, diplomatic and security fields and make an effort to build a political relationship of mutual trust.
In response to China’s growing presence, United States launched its Pivot to Asia in 2012. According to the Obama Administration, the reason for the pivot lies in three major developments. First, the Asia-Pacific region is more and more important to the United States’ economic interests, and China is of particular importance to the nation’s economic future. Second, the United Sates’ ability to project power and the freedom of navigation in the region may be challenged by China, in light of its growing military capabilities and its claims to disputed maritime territory. Third, US allies in Asia-Pacific doubt the US’ commitment to the region, taking into consideration the U.S. government’s budget cutting, particularly the defence budget.
Confronted with the US pivot and an extensive military build-up throughout the region, in 2013, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang elaborated an extensive geo-political strategy of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Silk Road, or One Belt One Road. It’s aimed to extricate China from its strategic encirclement by the US and its allies, while opening up further trade and investment opportunities for China. The 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is designed to go from China’s coast to Europe through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean in one route, and from China’s coast through the South China Sea to the South Pacific in the other. It emphasises on improving connectivity with Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia and even Africa, by building a network of port cities along the Silk Route, linking the economic hinterland in China. More importantly, it aspires to improve China’s geo-strategic position in the world.
China’s acrimonious relations with some states in Southeast Asia due to maritime disputes have created complex circumstances for itself in building better relations with its neighbours. Through their vision of re-energising the MSR, Chinese leaders aim to impart a new lease of life to China’s peripheral policy and diffuse the tension. The main emphasis was placed on stronger economic cooperation, closer cooperation on joint infrastructure projects, the enhancement of security cooperation, and strengthening maritime economy, environment technical and scientific cooperation. Beijing has even proposed to allocate up to $1.4 trillion to finance the huge array of infrastructure projects and is setting up financial institutions alongside the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Asian Development Bank.
China’s grand strategy to emerge as a global power has generated as much insecurity and danger in its neighbourhood as its mounting campaign to control the South/East China Sea, a vital waterway for international commerce. In addition to installing the oil rigs, Beijing’s efforts to assert sovereignty over the many specks of rock dotting the South/East China Sea. The rapid expansion of China’s military and economic capabilities raised fear and anger among its maritime neighbours, but has not stopped Beijing from expanding its power.
*Anubha Rastogi is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be reached at: [email protected]