The South China Sea seven years on

Author: Michael McDevitt, CNA /  19 July 2017 /  EAF

This month seven years ago at the Hanoi ASEAN Regional Forum, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton made a very public, and — for the Chinese — surprising, intervention into the South China Sea (SCS) disputes. This move implicated Washington in a way that was probably unforeseen in Washington and in the region at the time.

While the objective of the Clinton statement was to indicate that peace and stability in the SCS was a US interest, in hindsight, by choosing to be so publically involved — over time exhorting   China to play by the rules; stop building and militarising islands; and abide by the Permanent Court of Arbitration findings — Washington found itself trying to shape Chinese SCS activity with absolutely no practical leverage (short of the use of force or imposition of trade or economic penalties — actions Washington was correctly unwilling to countenance).

Beijing ignored US exhortations and essentially told Washington to mind its own business. In Beijing’s view, Washington was involving itself in a matter of Chinese sovereignty and security. Beijing is convinced that all the land features in the SCS and, at a minimum, the maritime entitlements appertaining to them, are Chinese territory.

Beijing has been waging a patient long-term campaign to regain these claimed maritime rights and interests. For six decades since the 1950s when Beijing occupied abandoned Nationalist Chinese islands in the eastern Paracels, China has inexorably collected islands, rocks and other features in the SCS through the combined use of force, coercion and occupation. Turning its seven small and long-occupied toeholds in the Spratly Islands into major military facilities is just the latest manifestation of this long-term strategic objective.

Beyond recovering ‘lost sovereign territory’, the defence of China is also directly related to control of the land features in the SCS. Bases in the Paracels and Spratlys provide strategic depth for an enemy planning to attack China via the SCS. Hainan is especially important to the People’s Liberation Army since Beijing has decided to homeport its growing ballistic missile submarine force at the southern end of that island.

China is also hugely dependent on the maritime trade routes that pass to the west of the Spratlys, including trade associated with the much-touted 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Controlling these islands is the best way for China to make certain no-one else does. Now with three large, newly constructed airfields, it will be able to conduct routine airborne surveillance of its SCS maritime approaches, along with much of Southeast Asia.

So, seven years on, where are we today? What has US policy aimed at moderating China’s SCS behaviour accomplished, and what is the way forward? Read more…



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