3 Myths about Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions

3 Myths about Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions

China has been accused of stoking regional tensions in the South China Sea. However, China’s grievances in the dispute have often been misinterpreted – for Beijing, the South China Sea is about national security.

Every few weeks China does something in the South China Sea which heightens tensions in the region. In doing so, it tarnishes its international image and damages important relationships it has spent decades fostering. So why does Beijing continue?

In a dispute as complex as the South China Sea, facts and opinions often become blurred. Here are three myths about China which are commonly thrown around:

China wants the South China Sea to drill for oil and gas

It is generally agreed that there are hydrocarbons beneath the South China Sea, yet these figures are extremely low compared to estimated reserves in other parts of the world. Moreover, most hydrocarbons are not in disputed waters but close to countries’ shorelines within their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ).

Furthermore, China’s pollution woes have also been well documented over the last few years and the problem has only become exacerbated. As a result, Beijing has thrown itself behind green energy investments and is now outpacing both the U.S and Europe combined.

As China’s economy continues to slow, its energy demands have also contracted in line with the shrinking of the manufacturing sector. This is not to say that energy demand in China has peaked, but rather that China’s future energy demands will increase, albeit in a more manageable way.

Taken together, China’s desire for fossil fuels is slowly being displaced. Therefore, it makes little sense for China to be willing to sacrifice so much in the South China Sea for so little energy.

China is acting ‘aggressively’

To understand China’s moves in the South China Sea is to understand its history and perception of its role in the world. Simply labelling Beijing ‘aggressive’ ignores the point and promulgates the dispute.

First and foremost, Beijing views the South China Sea as a national security issue. Historically, China’s inward-looking focus and neglect of the sea ultimately led to the ‘century of humiliation’ when foreign powers forced Beijing’s hand and opened it up to international trade.

Foreign powers established their own judicial systems in major cities under a system of non-reciprocal extraterritoriality – a concept which still evokes discomfort in China. Whenever Beijing attempted to take a stand, foreign powers would pillage cities along the coast and extract further concessions from the government, commonly known as the Opium Wars.

In the Chinese psyche, the century of humiliation began because Beijing was incapable of defending its coastline. Foreign powers arrived in China through the South China Sea and imposed trade at gunpoint, China’s society and system of governance which had prospered for more than 1000 years was overturned in the space of a few decades.

Therefore, China’s artificial island building and massive ramp up of naval activities is about safeguarding what it perceives as its ‘backyard’ to prevent similar situations from happening again. Similarly, controlling trade flows in the South China Sea is Beijing’s insurance policy against economic crippling. After all, if a trade blockade were erected in the South China Sea, China would stand to lose the most.

This is compounded by what Beijing views as its extremely precarious geopolitical situation in the region – surrounded on all sides by states friendly to the US or undergoing rapprochement: South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam all lay in close proximity and effectively surround China to its West, East and South, respectively. In this context it is certain that Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ hasn’t made Beijing feel any safer.

Simply put, controlling the South China Sea is a question of ‘safety’ for Beijing.

China claims the whole region

China claims the South China Sea but has never given a precise definition of what it regards as its national waters and its exclusive economic zone – the history of the 9 dash line is convoluted and does not hold up legally. Meanwhile, Beijing has happily let its claims be thrown around by media outlets propagating a notion that was never officially clarified.

As a result, Beijing and Washington continue to argue over terms neither one agrees on. Washington demands freedom of navigation and conducts FONOPS which Beijing depicts as aggressive manoeuvring. Beijing claims that placing a radar system, ground to air missiles and dispatching fighter jets on their artificial islands doesn’t count as ‘militarising’ the South China Sea, viewing them merely as defensive measures.

Washington doesn’t understand the importance China’s places on the South China Sea for its own security.  Meanwhile Beijing balks at accusations, instead believing that it is being treated unfairly.

Beijing will keep building its islands and expanding its naval presence until it feels safe. Washington will continue to forge partnerships in the region hoping to limit China’s influence. It is a perpetuating cycle of negative reciprocity that will continue unabated.

At the end of the day, the South China Sea is essentially a dispute about two competing visions for the future of the region. Until Washington and Beijing can agree on that, there is little chance any amount of dialogue will resolve the impasse.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Nicolas Jenny

Nicolas Jenny specialises in European and Asian political risk analysis. He has lived extensively throughout the region and speaks English, French and Mandarin. He holds a double master's from Sciences Po Paris and Fudan University and a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol.