March 29, 2017 2:00 pm JST
Bill Hayton

What does China really want in the South China Sea?

Historical myths, defense strategy and economic interests all play a role

The question of what China actually wants in the South China Sea is surprisingly little studied in the West. Too many international analysts seem happy to make assumptions about China's strategic and tactical motivations without reference to Chinese statements or documents.

A preoccupation among U.S. strategists, in particular, about freedom of navigation, the safety of allies and the maintenance of a rules-based order dominates most English-language writing about the dispute. Too often they project the same motivations onto the "other" and interpret Chinese actions accordingly.

The few available official Chinese documents paint a different picture. China's white paper on military strategy released in May 2015 identified the major threats facing China as "hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism," and stated that the military's top priority is "to safeguard [China's] national unification, territorial integrity and development interests."

While the U.S. analysts are focused on access through the South China Sea as part of the "global commons," the Chinese focus is on defending the South China Sea as part of China's inherent territory. My research casts serious doubt on this historical narrative but Western analysts need to take it much more seriously if they are to understand what is driving the disputes there.

Although the opacity of China's political process makes it difficult to assess how the country's leadership "really" regards the South China Sea, official documents and statements do provide some insights. As Ryan Martinson of the U.S. Naval War College has observed, in June 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that China must place the highest priority on building "an impregnable wall for border and ocean defense."

Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has noted that Xi has repeatedly focused on "the need to firmly uphold China's territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national unity, and properly handle territorial and island disputes."

The admiral's list

In his 2004 memoirs, Adm. Liu Huaqing, regarded as the father of the modern Chinese navy, listed six maritime objectives in his strategy of "near-seas active defense," including reunifying Taiwan with the mainland; the return of lost and disputed maritime territory; defending national maritime resources; securing China's strategic lines of communication; precluding or defeating decisively any seaborne attack by foreigners; and building sufficient strategic nuclear deterrence.

What seems most significant is that the first three goals concern the "returning" of territory and resources to national control. This is testament to the Chinese leadership's enduring obsession with ending the country's "national humiliation."

Despite this, international analysis of Chinese actions in the South China Sea has concentrated too much on the last three goals -- the classic subjects of traditional naval studies and international relations -- and not enough on the first half. Such analysis fails to understand the key motivations driving Chinese policy.

China's actions are predicated upon a sense of national entitlement to the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea based upon nationalist readings of regional history. This sense of entitlement is likely to lead China to make even more assertive moves in the region over the coming years -- a creeping annexation of strategic and resource-rich areas -- that will result in further confrontations.

Strategic considerations are clearly very important to China. For a country dependent on trade, access to the open ocean through the South China Sea is a matter of national survival. Seen through this lens, it can easily be argued that China's island-building is a defensive response to a possible future U.S. military war strategy to interdict maritime trade routes.

China has been a net importer of food since 2007 and in 2013 China surpassed the U.S. to become the world's largest net oil importer. Foreign trade makes up around 40% of China's gross domestic product, yet the country has no clear access to the open sea.

A second element to this "defensive" agenda is to strengthen "anti-access/area denial" strategy against U.S. efforts to support Taiwan in the event of a conflict. China's new island bases greatly increase monitoring by China's early warning systems, facilitate easier tracking of potential targets and offer dispersed havens for warships and planes.

A third element is that China is expected to use the deep-water areas of the South China Sea to provide a base for its new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines. It would be considerably easier for China to construct a "bastion" for these submarines if it were able to control the Scarborough Shoal.

The installation of large "aerial farms" and radar towers on the new artificial islands that China is building suggests they would be used as bases for air, surface and undersea surveillance operations to strengthen an integrated defense of the submarines within the bastion. China's island-building also reflects its goal to deter Southeast Asian claimants from any action that might prevent China from exploiting natural resources there.

It has been argued that China's actions in the South China Sea are the fruit of a grand strategy authorized from the very top of its political system after Xi become China's leader in 2012. But there are plenty of indications that some Chinese officials supported a more assertive policy well before Xi took power.

This appears to reflect competition among many parties, including the armed maritime forces, the fishing industry and state-owned energy companies, which stand to benefit from an assertive South China Sea policy. Although these lobbies sometimes fight among themselves, the power of these interest groups are immense when they work together. One thing they can all agree on is that whether for reasons of nationalism, security, profit or jobs, China must have access to the space and resources of the South China Sea.

"Historic" rights

Underpinning these "defensive" and bureaucratic motivations is a particular, chauvinistic version of history. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, the official Chinese view is that only Chinese ships ever used the South China Sea and so therefore China has "historic rights" to waters inside its "U-shaped line" claim. In July 2016 an international Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague ruled there were no legitimate grounds for China to claim "historic rights," nonetheless, this argument continues to underpin the ongoing conflict between China and neighboring Southeast Asian states.

Research strongly suggests that China's South China Sea claim was developed in the first half of the 20th century as a domestic political response to clashes with Japanese and European imperialism. It emerged in stages during crises in 1909, 1933 and World War II. The development of the claim was, in part, an act of symbolic resistance and it is this aspect of its history that still makes it such an emotive issue today.

The U.S., and other governments, have wisely remained neutral on the territorial question. However, that does not mean they should ignore it. If analysts discount the territorial elements and focus only on questions of grand strategy they will end up answering the wrong question, leaving the problem of the South China Sea to fester. The end result, as the region has repeatedly seen, is conflict. This conflict cannot be resolved by confidence-building measures or shows of naval force. The root cause of China's sense of entitlement needs to be addressed.

Chinese policy on the South China Sea reflects a sense of grievance that other players in the disputes usually fail to appreciate. China believes it is righting wrongs that were committed against it in previous decades. From Beijing's point of view, its advances in the South China Sea are justified because they are reclaiming "lost" territory.

Historical paranoia

Beijing believes that any action by a foreign power that tries to obstruct the reunification of the national territory -- whether it be a naval patrol or an international arbitral tribunal -- must be resisted, because it is simply another episode in a long history of foreign plots to split the Chinese homeland.

Although there are obvious problems with the official Chinese historical narrative, it is important to realize that the sense of righteousness it generates for Chinese policy-making could lead to further conflict. If policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere fail to recognize the motivating power of China's historical narrative and territorial imperative they will fail to understand Chinese objectives.

Neither diplomacy nor confrontation will diminish the motivation behind China's actions in the South China Sea. While the use of force may obstruct Chinese advances temporarily, it will also amplify feelings of frustration and provoke calls within China for an even more assertive response. The disputes can only be truly resolved by undermining China's sense of righteousness -- and that requires exposing its misuse of historical evidence and challenging its defective version of history.

China's strategic reasons for maintaining a strong presence in the South China Sea -- the defense of its coast, sea lanes and nuclear deterrent -- will endure. But its arguments for exclusive control of maritime resources and the right to regulate navigation are based upon flawed historical narratives and can be challenged.

Since these are the two issues most likely to cause conflict, challenging them is more than worthwhile. It is quite possible to remain politically neutral on the territorial question while simultaneously asserting that China's claims lack verifiable evidence. All states with an interest in a peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes need to take the history more seriously and assert that unsupported claims are not a viable basis for dialogue and conflict resolution.

For the Asian region and the world, critical engagement with Chinese experts and policymakers about the basis of their South China Sea narrative is an essential first step. Interlocutors with Chinese officials must arm themselves with the evidence to challenge bogus historical narratives and be prepared to use it in their discussions. Over the past 20 years, all this evidence has become easily available. It is time to use it.

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow at Chatham House and author of "The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia." This article is based on a lecture to be delivered at the University of Tokyo on April 6.

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