After decades of territorial dispute in the South China Sea, China now decides to take over the marine order in Asia-Pacific region
Photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

The artificial island in the South China Sea/Photo credit: CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

If you think the US is the only dominating world power, think it again. The naval activities of the US in the South China have triggered quick response from China–don’t try to get around my backyard, the Chinese official warned.  

The US has sent warships to exercise “freedom of navigation” in the Chinese-claimed area of the South China Sea, yet China insisted that it is a threat to China’s sovereignty and security.  

After China’s high profile military parade for the 70th anniversary of the World War II Victory Day and Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to America this September, the 1.4 billion-populated territory stirs up a new wave of disputes as it responded the US maritime activities in the South China Sea reaffirms the status of the South China Sea as part of its sovereign area, which is also partly claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.  

The dispute dates back to as early as the 70s when Vietnam and China exchanged fire in the Paracel Islands, resulting in dozens of Vietnamese casualties as the People’s Liberation Army from China declared victory. In 1988, both Communist-ruled countries clashed again in the Spratly Islands, but the outcome didn’t change much–some 60 Vietnamese were killed in the battle. There weren’t major armed conflicts until now. Yet, the tension rises again as the American warship sailed across the sensitive parts of China’s self-acclaimed territorial waters in late October.

Peaceful rise

China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy since 2010, according to Bloomberg. The Communist-ruled country has growing influence on both global economy and geopolitics, especially in the case of the South China Sea dispute. While the Chinese officials insist the essence of “peaceful rise” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), its military spending has increased 1.5 times in 2014 compared to 2005, which is about $200 billion (€180 billion) and ranked second out of the top 15 countries with high military spending, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

In April 2015, China took a step further to strengthen its status in the South China Sea regardless of opposition from Southeast Asian countries–building artificial islands with a total area of more than 800 hectares within the South China Sea area.

“By having some bases on the artificial islands, China can assure it can monitor entire South China Sea in the peacetime,” says Shibuichi Daiki, a Hong Kong-based Japanese assistant professor with expertise in identity politics. Daiki said that the islands will pave the way for the Chinese Coast Guard and the People’s Liberation Army(PLA) to stretch their muscles.

But Daiki also points out that militarization in the disputed area may not be ideal to carry out in the artificial islands. “Militarily speaking, artificial islands are very vulnerable to attacks, so the PLA won’t expect them to function much during war-time, even if there is a real war involving America,” he says.

China doesn’t want to have a war in the South China Sea, the Chinese official states. In a remark of Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang during a press conference on 27th October, he emphasizes that China will solve the South China Sea dispute with peaceful means, but he also states that “when it has to react, it will decide when and how to react”.  

The Red Dragon & the Bald Eagle

While the US remains the largest economy in the world with $18.1 trillion of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), China becomes the third fastest growing economy with 6.8% increase in 2015 compared to 2014. The tension between the two superpowers becomes a highlight of the recent South China Sea dispute.

The US-China chess game across the Asia-Pacific region advances as China tries to test the bottom line of the US by building artificial islands to undermine the maritime presence of the US, according to Wilson Chan, research assistant at the Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies. “China would like to establish a sense of ownership of the region,” he says.  

The power struggle between China and the US is obvious as the South China Sea dispute is a strategic competition for the access of the trading hub. “China is probably trying to achieve the redistribution of power in East Asia in its favor and gain control of both South China Sea and East China Sea so that it can become a hegemon in the region,” says Horiuchi Toru, assistant programme director of Global Studies at Chinese University of Hong Kong. 

“China’s strong stance is creating a security dilemma in the region(South China Sea), prompting almost all neighboring coastal countries to engage in military buildup, especially their navies and air forces,” Toru says. “They also wish to see the US continue to act as a strategic balancer against China, perhaps leading to the emergence of an anti-China coalition led by the US.”

The recent American warship inspection activities seem not to affect the relations between the US and China, but they do cost a high price between China and other Asian countries.