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South China Sea Dispute Overview

The South China Sea covers an area of 3.5 million square kilometers. The sea is considered a strategic area militarily and economically. According to various measurements and assessments, there are huge oil and gas deposits below the sea.

Beyond the energy reserves, about 30 percent of the world’s maritime transport passes through the South China Sea and carries about $5 trillion worth of goods.

In addition to all this, there is a large amount of commercial fishing in the sea. Therefore, it is clear that those who have the strongest presence in the sea will take over a strategic sea route and enormous energy reserves.

South China Sea Dispute
South China Sea map

It can be said that control of the South China Sea will ensure control of Southeast Asia. Several countries lie on the shores of the South China Sea, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan (where China is not recognized as an independent state but a Chinese province).

In the South China Sea, there are more than 250 small islands, most of which are largely uninhabited but the main points of disagreement are Spratly islands, Paracel islands, and the Gulf of Tonkin.

South China Sea dispute map
The South China Sea claims map by Voice of America

When all this data is taken into account, the South China Sea dispute takes on a different meaning. This is not a negligible or insignificant area, but rather an area that is key to military and economic control throughout Southeast Asia.

South China Sea Dispute Podcast

The beginning of the South China Sea Dispute

In the 1970s, China and Vietnam confronted over Paracel islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam lost and China managed to take over the islands and affirm a base there.

However, the conflict on the South China Sea was significantly boosted in 1992 when China passed a law that the entire South China Sea belonged to China. Since then, China has been strengthening its hold on the sea by constantly exploiting its growing economic power, military capabilities, political status, and no less important, the weakness of the superpowers.

Over the past decade, China has completed the construction of dozens of military bases on islands and reefs scattered across the South China Sea.

South China sea disputeYongxing Island, part of Paracel Islands (credit: Paul Spijkers)

At first, China claimed that the buildings were completely civilian. Today it is clear that the bases are military in nature and the main inhabitants of the islands are Chinese soldiers.

At the same time, China became more aggressive in its claims to the ownership of the sea and began to prevent entry into the territorial waters surrounding the islands.

In recent years there has been a series of events in and outside the region that continues to lead to a worsening of the situation and the level of statements, threats, and actions taken by all parties involved.

One of the most significant events was a lawsuit filed by the Philippines against China at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2013 for violating their sovereignty in the South China Sea in the vicinity of the Philippines.

In 2016 the court accepted the Philippines’ claim and ruled against China. However, China announced that it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction, and of course, its rulings.

At the same time, the rise of the Trump administration led to a change in the Obama administration’s feeble approach to the region, and the US military began sending military patrols into areas claimed by China.

The patrols were conducted by US destroyers and planes and have become the main cause of friction in the South China Sea. Currently, the US is the only country that is not afraid to confront China and challenge China’s takeover of the region.

Will China Launch A War Against the USA over the South China Sea Dispute?

In 1996, Professor Samuel Huntington published his book “Collision of Civilizations”. The book dealt with the world after the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the book’s main prediction was that the conflict between the two major powers would be replaced by a clash of civilizations.

South China sea conflict
World’s civilizations map, by Prof. Huntington

One of the major civilizations is China. Professor Huntington predicted then that the South China Sea could become a focus of confrontation that would ignite a war between China and the United States.

Professor Huntington’s prediction was very accurate, although there has still been no war. The region has become a constant focus of tension between the armies of the United States and China, and friction seems to be rising. A war between the United States and China over their territorial rights dispute seems like a natural and unavoidable development.

It can be assumed that the Americans will not intentionally start a war but will continue to sail warships in areas that China claims to own. But what can we assume about the Chinese? Will they start a war?

There is, of course, no way to predict the future accurately, but it is possible to try to evaluate.

The relevant considerations for assessing the likelihood of a confrontation

What are the chances of success of a Chinese military move against the United States? The Chinese success criteria for such a move is the cessation of American shipping in the South China Sea and the adoption of China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea.

If the United States actually stops the flights and the destroyers’ patrols in areas that China claims to own, it can be assumed that no other country will dare to confront China militarily to prevent them from completely taking over the sea.

China, armed with missiles capable of hitting an American aircraft carrier, openly declares that its missiles are capable of sinking an aircraft carrier. Suppose China prepares the US Pearl Harbor of the South China Sea, launches a devastating missile attack, and manages to destroy an entire American Armada.

What will happen next? Will the United States retreat, raise their hands, and give up?

History should teach us one thing: The United States will embark on a full-scale war against China.

A Comparison Between USA & China’s army

For the sake of a very detailed comparison between the two armies, you can click here, but since we would like to take a high-level view, we will focus on several key things:

Army’s Budget The US military budget is more than $ 600 billion, about 2.5 times the budget of the Chinese military, which is reflected in a huge gap in naval and air power. The United States holds 20 aircraft carriers compared to China’s 2. The number of the United States’ attack aircraft and helicopters incomparably exceeds that of the Chinese. The fact that the Chinese have a much larger reservist army, seems almost meaningless in this context. Other significant capabilities such as logistics, communications, electronic warfare, and unmanned aircraft are much more developed in the American military.

Army allies

China’s most significant ally in the region is Pakistan, which has no outlet to the South China Sea. The Americans, on the other hand, have the Philippines, Taiwan, India, and Singapore. Each of these countries could serve as an important logistical rear for the US military.

This is not just a logistical hinterland, but rather the ability to strangle the Chinese economy and impose a naval blockade on China. Much of China’s energy consumption comes from Africa.

The excess American power at sea can relatively easily block the maritime route and paralyze the energy consumption of the Chinese economy and the export of its goods, much of which operates in the South China Sea.

History of China’s Confrontation

What is the potential damage of China?

Suppose China decided to take military action against the Americans. What are the options at its disposal? At least according to Chinese statements themselves (https://edition.cnn.com/2019/01/10/asia/china-missiles-south-china-sea-intl/index.html), they would choose to launch missiles and sink an aircraft carrier.

There is no doubt that this is a serious military attack that will bring down thousands of American soldiers, fighter planes, missiles, and the aircraft carrier itself.

Apart from this, the Chinese have no other military options. It is possible, of course, to imagine a ballistic missile attack on the United States, but this possibility seems completely unrealistic and will only be realistic in the case of a full-scale war between the two countries.

Suppose China actually sunk an American aircraft carrier. What results can China expect from such a move?

From the Chinese point of view, the goal of such a move would be to deter the Americans from repeatedly infiltrating what the Chinese see as their territory and finally eliminating any military challenge to China’s claims in the South China Sea. If the United States were to no longer position more challenges, the Philippines or Vietnam will not be able to do so either.

But is it really likely that the American aircraft carrier ring will cause the Americans to tuck their tail and leave the South China Sea? Maybe.

But if we look at history, the likelihood of an unacceptable military coup for China leading to economic disaster and perhaps the fall of the communist regime is more likely.

Unlike Europe, the United States has never been passive or submissive in defending what it saw as its most important interests. Examples are abundant.

Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq, and the latest examples are the disproportionate response to the big terror attack on the Twin Towers.

The United States simply destroyed two states, Iraq and Afghanistan, out of a desire for revenge against those who harmed it. In other words, China would actually risk a disproportionate response, for example:

  • The elimination of its naval force
  • Destruction of main ports and airports
  • Destruction of government buildings and symbols of the Communist Party
  • The imposition of a prolonged naval blockade and its economic paralysis
  • Total destruction of all naval bases China has built in the South China Sea, removing Chinese presence in the South China Sea (This is a possible US response in consideration of the logic of a Chinese assault against the USA)
  • Infrastructure destruction (energy, water, military, government)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese were very wrong in assessing their power and in underestimating the power of Britain and then Japan.

China paid for these mistakes in full. It can be said that it was only after World War II that China began to experience full independence again. Can China make the same mistake again and underestimate the USA excess of power?

We shall assume carefully that the answer to this question is not rhetorical. Since the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese have proved one thing, they have a vision and a clear strategy that is updated every five years through the five-year plans. They are rational, goal-oriented, and they are very determined.

So what is China’s strategy?

China’s Strategy – Walking On the Threshold

To understand China’s strategy it is important to understand first of all how China views itself and what is perceived by China and its citizens as the most essential thing for China.

What is the ethos of the Chinese people (most of them – except for small minorities)?

One Emperor Under The Sky

If we were to look at Chinese history and choose one point as the most significant landmark in Chinese history, we would choose 221 BC as the most important year in the history of China.

South China sea conflict
Qin Emperor

In that year, Emperor Qin, after whom China was called, succeeded in uniting the countries that had made up China and fought for centuries, into one state (not in the modern sense of course) under one imperial rule.

The reign of the Emperor of China lasted only a short time, 14 years, and during those years Emperor Qin acted to unite China.

Chinese unity and the need for one emperor to rule under the sky in China were then burned into the Chinese national consciousness and continue as such to this day.

Thus, one can understand how Taiwan and China see each other as original China. They do not challenge the unity of China, but only the representation of this unity.

Since 221 BC, during periods when there was one powerful dynasty that ruled as well as during transitional periods of dying dynasties and new dynasties, the ethos of one emperor under the sky was always dominant in China.

Middle Earth

China has always perceived itself as a central power. It saw itself as the center of the world and the other peoples as culturally, politically, administratively, and intellectually subordinate to it.

Jesuit Chinese world map
Middle earth, an ancient world map, was drawn by Jesuit missioners

Thus, China maintained its political relations with many countries in East Asia. The connection was based on delegates who came to visit the emperor’s court (after receiving approval of course), brought gifts with them, received gifts from the Chinese emperor, and was allowed to stay in China for a while to learn what China had to offer.

It was also the way the Chinese treated Britain without understanding the risk and irrelevance of this perception and approach when dealing with the Western powers.

In the Chinese language, China is called Zhong Guo (中国) that is, the middle earth. China is in the center of the world and other countries around it.

The values of Confucianism – Harmony and Hierarchy

During the Mao Zedong period, China suppressed the Chinese. An all-out war against Chinese culture was declared. The war ended after the death of Mao Zedong and since then China has been in the process of returning to the values of Confucianism that have characterized it for thousands of years.

Over 500 Confucius Institutes have been established around the world to spread the culture of China.

What are the basic values of Confucianism?

If you summarize them concisely, then it is about hierarchy and harmony. The hierarchy is based on five relationships defined by Confucius and in each relationship, there is a senior and junior.

There are no two equals. For example, the old man is senior to the young man. The father is senior to the son. The husband is a senior to his wife.

If human relations are to be cast into international relations, then it is clear that China is more important than Vietnam or the Philippines or any other country in the region because of its size, its antiquity, and its strength.

Harmony – When each person knows his role, harmonious society is created. When people do not know their role and try to be what they are not supposed to be, social disorder begins to form.

Confucius spoke of relationships between people, but this idea also applies to international relations. A junior state that tries to be a senior and refuses to accept the prestige of the larger and stronger country will cause an international disorder.

Therefore, every person and every company or country must recognize their role and their place so that harmony can be achieved.

The Prospect of a Confrontation in the South China Sea

Now that we have very briefly reviewed the military issue, potential damage, and some of China’s major ethos, is it possible to better understand China’s strategy in the South China Sea?

We assume the answer is yes, but this is of course only an estimation. Reality has its own rules and one incident that spins out of control can completely change the game. Assuming that the territorial struggle in the South China Sea will be managed by both sides, we shall assume that China will continue to walk on the threshold while the threshold rises slightly each time.

From rational thinking, they will not dare to make any dramatic war moves, such as the aircraft carrier ring. They might engage in warning fire or maybe light exchanges of fire, but not the aircraft carrier ring.

The price that China might pay in such a case would set its economy back by decades, undermine Communist Party control, encourage social unrest within China, and dismantle strategic alliances that China has built with great effort in the last twenty years in Asia and South America.

But the more ironic part of such an operation could be an American attack that would destroy all the naval bases China had built in the South China Sea with great effort.

In other words, rationally, China has so much to lose in the event of wartime action against the United States that this alone is sufficient to decide the scale of the assessment.

In addition, China by nature is not a war-seeker. Its past includes many internal wars even before it was founded (the period of the warring states some 2,500 years ago) and since then, especially during the periods of decline of the dynasties, but it includes very few external wars.

Two attempts to invade Japan in the 13th century were led by the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Other wars (opium wars with Britain) broke out in the nineteenth century against Britain due to the opium import into China by Britain in order to improve its trade balance with China. China was dragged into a war with Japan following the Japanese provocations in Korea. During the 20th century, China was involved in World War II, and a war with India on Arunachal Pradesh in the Himalayas, an area claimed by China.

If China’s history is compared to the history of any other Western country, there is no doubt that China is essentially a peace-seeking nation, yet it has great ambitions to return to its status as Middle-earth, the great empire, and the greatest power in the world to which everyone aspires.

In this context, China views itself as a Confucian. From China’s standpoint its size, economic, military, and political power make it a more important country than others. So, the other countries must recognize this and respect China.

As Confucius said, when everyone knows his place, there will be harmony. When each country knows its place (senior or junior), there will be harmony, that is, peace.

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