The South China Sea is one of many contentious areas around the globe where dueling nations face off and try to gain ground, all without resorting to lethal means. According to AP News, China has claimed most of the South China Sea, justifying its naval expansion without regard for its neighbors’ territorial waters or a judicial ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that ruled against Chinese claims to the area.
Since The Hague does not have a police force capable of enforcing its edicts, Beijing simply ignored the ruling and continued to seize contested islands. In some cases, China created artificial islands and converted them into military bases, notes Radio Free Asia. Naturally, China’s many neighbors do not take kindly to this encroaching militarization and push back whenever possible while trying to prevent escalation.
That situation is changing, however. China’s military growth has allowed Beijing to become more assertive in the South China Sea and limit access by adversarial navies, most notably the U.S. Navy.
Though it’s contentious, control of the South China Sea is not enough to satisfy Beijing’s quest for national security. Voice of America notes that China is building port facilities globally under the guise of civilian trade while ensuring that these new ports can serve a military purpose as well.
China Is Running Out of Time
These moves by China are not surprising, but time is a factor and China is running out of that particular commodity.
China’s military expansion stems from its export-oriented economy. Not only is China reliant on much of the world to purchase its products, but China also relies on the good graces of foreign powers – some of which are hostile – to maintain access to sea lanes that allow Chinese businesses to export their products.
For a nation as large as China, such a position is intolerable. However, Beijing has been patient and has created a global dependency on its participation in the world’s economy. With this rapid economic growth, China has used its economic power to modernize and expand its military with an eye on ultimately replacing the U.S. as the global superpower.
To accomplish this goal, China must control both the South and East China Seas. Also, it must control access to those waters by preventing a foreign power from exploiting the area’s chokepoints and expand its naval presence around the world.
So far, China has not accomplished any of these goals through its naval expansion. But by purchasing and controlling port facilities in other countries, China could have access to at least 10 international ports for its military use.
China Has Become Increasingly Aggressive around the Spratly Islands
Also, China has become increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea. This approach came to a head in the Spratly Islands in regard to a small piece of land known as the Second Thomas Shoal.
According to the BBC, China seized Mischief Reef, which lies next to the Second Thomas Shoal, in 1995. China then built a military installation on the reef to solidify its annexation.
By 1999, the Philippines responded by running aground an aging naval vessel, the Sierra Madre, on the Second Thomas Shoal to prevent Chinese expansionism. The Philippines maintains a small contingent of marines on the beached vessel to maintain its claim, but China has become increasingly aggressive in preventing Manila from resupplying those marines with food and other provisions.
Recently, Chinese Coast Guard vessels used water cannons and lasers to blind Filipino sailors and prevent the Philippines from landing provisions on the Second Thomas Shoal. The challenge for Beijing is that the Philippines and the U.S. have a mutual defense treaty that would obligate one of the signatories to come to the other’s aid in the event of a military attack. Should China escalate from the use of non-lethal means and bullying tactics, an overt attack on a Filipino vessel could draw in U.S. military forces.
China’s Naval Expansion: Improving Territorial Control without Economic Problems
China is walking a tricky tightrope with an eye on extending its territorial control without incurring the international wrath of economic punishment or economic disruption. What’s worse for China is that its economy has not recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic disruption. As a result, China’s economic growth is flat, and China is actively moving into deflation.
Beijing has nowhere to ship its excess goods. Also, China still needs to import a substantial amount of food to feed people and utilize a substantial amount of energy to run the nation. Many goods travel by sea, and China does not control the waterways on which it depends.
For China, time is running out. China’s population has shrunk, and its economy is suffering.
On the one hand, it may not be the right time for China to engage in a military adventure to seize more of the Spratly Islands or even Taiwan. China’s economic situation could continue to deteriorate, which would impact domestic issues in China.
On the other hand, this lack of time may force China to make a move sooner rather than later if Beijing doesn’t see its situation improving through China’s naval expansion. It’s difficult to tell which way China will lean. But whatever Beijing chooses to do, it will likely become a defining issue over the next decade.