China's ambition of "monopolizing control of the South China Sea" and risks of its execution

In Chinese leaders’ eyes, the South China Sea is critical to their strategy of expanding China’s influence and making China a world power. Politically speaking, the South China Sea is where China can deploy its "soft border" doctrine and its "Look South" policy, a "vital" way for China to overcome surrounding countries such as India, Russia, Japan and Republic of Korea to expand its influence in the world, a "gateway" for China to get out of the US containment and restraint to become a world power. In economic terms, the South China Sea is abundant in natural resources which can be exploited to make an important contribution to the rapid economic development of the most populous country in the world that is falling into a serious shortage of natural resources, particularly oil. With one of the world’s busiest maritime and air routes through the South China Sea, so "who controls the South China Sea will control economic development in East Asia”. From the military angle, the South China Sea is the entry into the Asian continent for US and Japanese naval forces, which is the passage for warships from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The South China Sea is also home to many important islands with strategic and tactical significance at sea to keep traffics and other activities at sea in control. Islands in the area can be developed into military bases which can serve as a starting point to attack enemies as well as a belt at the frontline to defend the mainland from afar. Therefore, with control over the South China Sea, China will expand its defensive space, pushing the battlefield far away from China’s mainland. More military bases in the islands will allow China to monitor and possibly threaten military operations of Southeast Asian countries, including controlling the US military operations. In addition, controlling the South China Sea also helps China to gather strength of millions of Chinese in Southeast Asian countries, strengthening national cohesion, supporting the unification and recovery of Taiwanese territory.

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Photo: Internet

Therefore, China for long has an ambition to "monopolize control of the South China Sea" through which to penetrate and dominate Southeast Asian countries in all areas of politics, economy, culture and military, thus expanding its role and influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the world. China strives to implement the "Blue Ocean" strategy with the main idea of "Open the door to the outside world, develop an outward-oriented economy in association with the right diplomatic and politic guidelines and a strong naval force to strongly support national development”. Accordingly, China sets the policy in the South China Sea to: Strengthen the defense potential, especially naval forces with capabilities to win and make deterrence at sea, a firm support for other activities to gradually take control of the South China Sea, ensuring China’s decisive role in the Asia-Pacific to become a world-class maritime power. China identifies the goal of step-by-step "reclaiming sovereignty" towards implementing "exclusive control" of the South China Sea to make way to the Pacific Ocean and facilitating access to the Indian Ocean, promoting China’s marine economic development and striving to make China a marine economic power, attaching special importance to exploiting oil and gas resources to meet domestic economic development demands, linking the "island chains" both as a boundary of self-defence and a boundary of operation. China identifies Japan - Taiwan - Hainan - Paracel Islands - Spratly Islands as the "inner island chain", Japan - the Philippines - Kalimantan - Sri Lanka as the "outer island chain", striving for its maritime force to be the active force in the "inner island chain" by 2010 and in the "outer island chain" area after 2010.

With this ambition in mind, China officially claims to the world that they have "sovereignty" over a large part of the South China Sea, which is delineated by a 9-dash line unilaterally drawn by China to occupy the waters of many countries in the South China Sea. China has developed and implemented a series of policies and steps to realize its ambition, with the following noticeable actions: The first is to constantly seek to legalize the claim of "sovereignty rights " in the South China Sea; the second is to promote implementation of the "Marine Economic Development Strategy" to support the South China Sea strategy; the third is to promote implementation of oil and gas exploration and exploitation plans in the South China Sea; the forth is to strengthen the military power, with prioritized development of naval forces, air force and strategic missiles in order to control the South China Sea while preventing other countries' interference; the fifth is to promote the policy of "setting aside disputes for joint exploitation" to divide ASEAN countries, prolonging time for the right opportunity for China to implement its strategic objectives in the South China Sea.

China's policies and steps to implement "monopolizing control of the South China Sea" ambition in the past few decades have made the situation in the South China Sea constantly unstable. The South China Sea has become one of the hottest "hot spots" in Asia-Pacific. These policies and steps themselves lead to unexpected risks and challenges for China and its leaders, specifically:

Firstly, China's ambition and actions have clearly revealed China's "expansionist" ideology and ‘Great Han’ chauvinism, which have been deeply rooted for a long time from the ancient feudal China, bringing neighboring nations and people great losses and sufferings that will remind them of continued vigilance to defend their sovereignty, independence and autonomy. This is the ideology that leaders of the new socialist China took all efforts to deny and soften to build the image of a China with full responsibility, respect for legitimacy, fairness, equality and support to developing nations and peoples. Today no one believes that China and its leaders have abandoned the "expansionist” ideology, disabling China's image improvement efforts so far.

Secondly, China's ambitions and actions are not supported by all Chinese people who have knowledge, patriotism, respect for the right and national pride, not accepting what China is doing in the South China Sea. There have been many voices of protest in the country and critics of reputable Chinese scholars against unreasonable 9-dash line claim by the Chinese leader. That disagreement has caused serious debates among China’s social classes and partly undermined public trust in the country. Of course, Chinese leaders have to find ways to silence those opinions. However, this only leads to accumulation of latent public disagreement, which may be added by weaknesses in other areas of social life that have not been settled by the regime to make the Chinese society at risk of instability.

Thirdly, what China has done in the past few years has made themselves a direct contender with all claimants in the South China Sea. When China behaves as a big country, smaller and weaker countries must of course keep patience, even silence, to remain in peace. But that patience has its own limits since national sovereignty is very sacred and is also living space for the people of these countries. Threatened countries will be forced to build and increase military potential to ensure their defense of national sovereignty. It is natural that smaller and weaker countries will come together and support each other in the "battle" against an opponent with superior strength. They may also try to get along with other big country to get an "umbrella" in case of emergency, even joining an alliance or setting up a foreign military base in their own countries. Chinese leaders seem to have recognized this too. So they are "appeasing" these countries with China’s policy of "amity, sincerity, preferentiality, and inclusiveness". But how to regain such amity and sincerity when its ambition remains intact?

Fourthly, for a long time, the Western media have strongly propagated the "China threat" theory with a lot of images and perspectives on a violent China, which will someday fight against other nations once it becomes a world superpower. The Chinese propaganda and communication apparatus had to operate at full capacity to rectify and reject it, arguing that it was the way the West scared people against China. Ironically, China's ambition and actions in the South China Sea are the most specific, authentic and clear evidence of what China is doing as a threat to the world, firstly to Southeast Asian countries. It turns out what the West says is not an "exaggeration".

Fifthly, China's ambition and actions cannot come unnoticed by the US and Western powers. In the context of global geostrategic competition, China's behaviors towards the South China Sea countries are unexpectedly creating opportunities for the US and the West to return to the Asia-Pacific in an open way to stop China's "southward" pathway. The US knows what and where China's grand strategy is, so the strategic focus to prevent China will be in the South China Sea. With the "America first" motto, the US will be willing to engage, including by military measures to protect the US citizens and "interests" in this waters. China will have to confront the US right in its "gateway." In retrospect, has China any "allies" that are willing to join them in a "game" against the US and its powerful allies? Obviously, the “China Dream” of “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation" is hard to become true in the medium term.

The overview of five risks and challenges China will face in its ambition of "monopolizing control” of the South China Sea shows that it is not easy for China to achieve what it wants. The best way is to stop that ambition when it's not too late.