To what extent does the South China Sea dispute reflect both China’s approach to national security and its geopolitical position?

China’s approach to national security is influenced by its geography, its history, its neighbours, and its changing status as a former regional and current global power. As the US flexed its muscles in the late 19th and early 20th century, China aimed to revolutionise its own military and its soft power capabilities (Black, 2015, p.227). This revolution is perhaps most evident in its coastal and maritime developments, which has been one of its achilles heels during the European colonial period. Its concentric rings of security developed for land security strategy have been extended, with modifications, to include the sea (Black, 2015, p.252), hence the focus placed on the South China Sea (SCS). This is particularly important for China as it remains heavily reliant on Middle Eastern energy such as Saudi crude oil (Dollar and Hass, 2021, online), much of which is inevitably transported via sea trade routes including the Strait of Malacca and ending in the SCS. Russia shares Beijing’s interest in weakening the West’s grasp on the international order and there are arguments that policy coordination is growing to the level of a ‘concert’ between the two powers (Jones, 2020, p.5). However the two powers have had consistently oscillating relations throughout recent history, and although they share many interests it is unlikely that Russia will happily permanently relegate itself to a junior partner in a bilateral or multilateral relationship. Chinese geopolitics is also shaped by its internal policies such as its maltreatment of Uigher Muslims and other minorities, although conveniently its Islamic neighbour Pakistan relies on Beijing to support it against India.   

The SCS dispute is a prominent feature of Chinese geopolitics, however its land-based trade routes such as the development of a New Silk Road are also very important features of its Eurasian strategy as it seeks, through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), to head a regional economic union (Harper, 2017, p.8-9). China’s claims to the bosom of the East Asian trade network, the SCS, are approximately 62% of the entire area overlapping the claims of several UN member states and Taiwan (CRS, 2021, online). To enforce this claim and in fragrant disregard to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has engaged in extensive land reclamation which was slated to be for holiday resorts. Naturally, it further developed the resorts with airstrips, anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, and jammers (CRS, 2021, online). 

China is and will be reliant on its maritime trade routes and the SCS’ natural resources for the foreseeable future, despite the development of land trade routes and continental economic cooperation. This is not an issue in and of itself, and is shared by South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, however it could provide potential leverage to any state or organisation that could control it- notably the US. As reconciliation with Taiwan is politically inconceivable in Beijing, the US will have an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the region, even when its own ships could be zoned out by developments in Chinese missile technology. Chinese aggression in the SCS mirrors its increasingly assertive posture in global politics after shedding its “hide and bide” strategy, and could only be the beginning in it challenging all the linchpins of the current global order.   

Word count: 541

Bibliography

Black, Jeremy (2015), Geopolitics and the Quest for Dominance, Indiana University Press, pp.211-259.

Congressional Research Service (2021), China Primer: South China Sea Disputes, online. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF10607 accessed 11/06/2021.

Dollar, David, and Hass, Ryan (2021), Getting the China Challenge Right, Brookings Institute, online.  https://www.brookings.edu/research/getting-the-china-challenge-right/ accessed 11/06/2021.

Harper, Tom (2017), ‘Towards an Asian Eurasia: Mackinder’s Heartland Theory and the Return of China to Eurasia’, Cambridge Journal of Eurasian Studies, 1(1), pp.1-27.

Jones, Bruce (2020), China and the Return of Great Power Strategic Competition, Brookings Institute, online, pp.1-11. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/FP_202002_china_power_competition_jones.pdf accessed 11/06/2021.

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