China’s historical claims to virtually the entire South China Sea as outlined in their traditional nine—line (see map)  poses a direct threat to the freedom of maritime navigation and oceangoing trade and commerce.
Moreover, the sea lanes are one of the globe’s busiest and most economically strategic – an estimated $5 trillion in ship-borne trade transits each year and five times more oil traffic than the Panama Canal. This situation becomes more acute when considering that five of the world’s 10 busiest shipping ports are located in this region. Should a situation arise where China would wish to access control to this region, it could easily disrupt the critical sea trade and oil shipments upon which East and Southeast Asia are strategically dependent. Such an eventuality would economically paralyze those nations that reside throughout this strategically vital region. This situation was reinforced when U.S. Admiral Scott Swift spoke in March 2016 at a Canberra security conference, where he commented that China’s activities in the South China Sea “was undermining global rules of behavior,” but could “cast a chill on commercial activities in the region.” He furthered, “the resulting climate of uncertainty not only threatens freedom of the seas and chips away at the rules-based system, it encourages nations to transfer ever-larger shares of national wealth to purchase naval weapons beyond what is needed merely for self – defense.”
The regional concerns over China’s overt claims and their creeping physical encroachment is multi- tracked. This region, in terms of raw resources, has strategic significance. There exist substantial untapped energy resources in the form of potentially vast oil and natural gas reserves. As well, the South China Sea is known for its vital fisheries that provide an essential source of protein for the growing regional population, as well as a livelihood for millions of people who are dependent upon this industry. As demonstrated by the events of March 29, 2016, when Indonesia seized and subsequently blew up 23 Vietnamese and Malaysian fishing boats that were reportedly poaching in Indonesian waters, this instance as well as other regional territorial disputes, has become acute . As of February 2016, Indonesia had demolished 27 fishing boats and scuttled more than 170 over the last two years. These activities in themselves underline “how central fishing is to the simmering territorial disputes that are turning the South China Sea into a potential global flash-point and how far countries are willing to go to defend their turf, or at least what they claim is theirs.”
Over the past year, maritime disputes between China and its regional neighbours as to who controls the waters of the South China Seas have risen, and this situation is accentuated by the increasingly aggressive activities of the large fishing fleets drawn from all the countries that ring the South China Sea. These fishing fleets represent national interests and represent the front-line for the countries engaged in the fight, as to who controls these once rocky outcrops, such as Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross, Scarborough Shoal and a host of others. This is a result of long-standing unresolved territorial disputes that involve all countries residing in the region. As one report noted, “seemingly innocent efforts by all parties to fish in traditional waters are sparking international showdowns, with potentially dangerous implications even for countries far away, including the United States.”
Threat of Escalation
The reality is that the South China Sea experiences daily clashes over fishing rights which could easily trigger a regional crisis, or possibly, an armed conflict is of growing concern not only to regional players but also to American strategic interests – much of which is generally unreported. As Gregory Poling, a maritime expert points out, these clashes represent, “the most likely factor to cause an escalation that nobody intended.” These concerns are well founded and are reflected in military, security and intelligence circles in Washington who closely monitor Chinese daily activities and have repeatedly appealed to the Chinese government to, “back off its coercive moves in the region and warned Beijing against ‘militarization’ of the South China Sea.”
As pointed out in a previous Mackenzie Institute study, China continues to refute any notion that it is trying to expand its geographic and military reach throughout the South China Sea. This ignores China’s brazen claims to the traditional nine dash line, which encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea, as well as China’s supposedly benign reclamation activities that have reportedly created 2,000 acres of artificial islands over the last few years. This additional land was created through massive dredging efforts that were conducted in regionally disputed waters. In some cases, these artificial islands include long runways and incorporate deep harbours that can accommodate naval ships, as well as military and civil aircraft. As to the latter, China announced it will begin civilian flights to and from Sansha City on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands. Sansha City is China’s administrative base for islands and reefs it controls in the South China Sea. The airfield in Sansha City and a newer one on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly archipelago will undoubtedly spark an expansion of Chinese air traffic services in the region.
Last November, China landed fully armed jet fighters on the airfield at Woody Island. It was also reported that reinforced hangars have been completed on the same airfield. Moreover, Beijing deployed anti-ship cruise missiles to the island, which the Chinese authorities have argued was not ‘militarization.’ The deployment of several HQ-9 anti-air missile batteries and the reported firing of a YJ-62 cruise missile from Woody Island, which is a part of the disputed holdings in the Paracel Islands off the coast of Vietnam, suggests otherwise. This deployment was in response to an American naval freedom of navigation (FoN) operation conducted near the Chinese holdings of Triton Island.
To meet these Chinese initiatives, regional countries and the United States have begun to undertake a series of defensive initiatives themselves and to bolster cooperative efforts. The Indonesian government, for example, deployed air defence systems on its Natuna Islands in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the US military recently deployed 5,000 troops for a 12-day joint US-Philippine exercise. These forces conducted amphibious operations as well as an exercise to retake an oil rig located near Palawan, the province closest to the Spratly island chain. This is an area where China has created artificial islands to bolster their historic claims to these waters. To buttress American concerns, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited the area to discuss security concerns with Philippine officials and observe the exercises.
Regional Importance of Commercial Fishing
Regional powers are seeking positional advantage in their respective quest to provide fish for their growing populations who depend upon this source of protein in their diet. Moreover, commercial fishing plays a major role in economic development, as well as providing jobs. It is estimated that by 2030 China will account for almost 40% of global fish consumption. This is compounded by the overfishing in the Western Central Pacific and parts of the South China Sea. Chinese fishermen have had to expand their commercial fishing grounds to meet their consumer demands. Similarly, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia have all bolstered their own fishing fleets to meet commercial demands. Interestingly, the waters that are the extended boundaries of the South China Sea are one of the few areas of the world were commercial fish catches have increased since 1950.
Commercial fishing is strategically important for the regional economies, and is vital to the feeding of the respective populations thriving in the region. One report noted, “Indonesia’s more than 460,000 fishing boats account for 3% of GDP and provides the bulk of the countries animal protein, critical to fighting malnutrition. Those vessels, big and small, are also the tip of the spear of the Indonesian government’s new maritime strategy, meant to help together the sprawling islands of the world’s largest archipelago. Fisheries, plays a similar important role in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand.” Hence, as the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry stated, “maintaining peace, stability, security, and maritime safety in the eastern sea is the common interest of the countries inside and outside the region. Every effort by the international community in maintaining peace and stability in the eastern sea is welcome.”
The Indonesian government’s strategy to mitigate illegal fishing involves convincing their neighbouring countries, who also experience poaching, to perceive this act as a type of organized crime. Indonesia’s criminal argument resonates with President Obama’s Administration and largely supports Indonesian efforts in reining in illegal fishing activities.
The persistent conduct of illegal fishing by the Chinese, combined with their aggressive encroachments upon disputed waters, has forced regional states to push back. Furthermore, China’s relentless dredging operations of the seafloor to create artificial islands has, according to a number of scientists, “decimated the coral reefs that birthed the South China Sea’s diverse marine population.”
The Less Salient Chinese Requirement for South China Sea Dominance
A less salient and subtle strategic reason for China’s aggressive initiatives to dominate the South China Sea is reminiscent of what the Soviet Union did in the Sea of Okhotsk during the years of the Cold War. During this period, the Soviet Union turned to their ballistic missile (SSBN)-armed submarines as insurance against American capability to destroy in situ land-based inter-continental based missiles (ICBMs). The need to secure these nuclear armed submarines from attack, as well as to ensure effective, command-and-control, meant that the Soviet SSBNs had to be stationed close to the Soviet homeland and therefore required longer-range missiles to ensure their capability to strike the Continental US. Therefore, the Sea of Okhotsk, like the Barents Sea, was prioritized for improving physical defences of the Kuril Islands and reinforcing the Soviet Pacific fleet that was based at their vitally important port of Vladivostok to provide a ‘safe haven’ for Soviet SSBNs. Reportedly, the Soviet Navy assigned 100 submarines to the Sea of Okhotsk along with a force of 140 surface warships which included the Kiev class light aircraft carrier, to secure and protect their strategic nuclear submarine capability.
In tandem with this Soviet naval strategy, China also has a strategic requirement to secure and protect its nuclear submarine capabilities within the South China Sea. With the Chinese Type 094 SSBNs coming online, and eight of these submarines scheduled for service by 2020, the protection of these strategic nuclear assets becomes of primary concern for China’s navy. Should a conflict occur, China would have to ensure the survivability of their SSBNs while effectively challenging any enemy anti-submarine or surface force that intends to penetrate the South China Sea.
Implications of the Departure of the United States from the Philippines
The Chinese strategy to secure the South China Sea for their strategic requirements dates back to the withdrawal of American forces from the Philippines in 1991 due to a wave of nationalistic sentiment. Military relations between the US and Philippines were strained in the wake of the American departure and China began incrementally to fill the power vacuum left in the region. During this period, China gradually reasserted its historical claims over the various waters, as well as the Paracel and Spratly Islands, to include 80% of the 3.5 million kilometers of the South China Sea and in accordance with their nine dash historical claim. (See map) China’s claims in the South China Sea, reportedly encompass more than 80% of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. The Chinese-claimed waters are known by Filipinos as the West Philippine Sea.
China’s claims include the shoals and islets that reside in the South China Sea, which are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. However, China has forcefully asserted its right to these by reclaiming them through large-scale dredging operations to build fortified artificial islands, which incorporate military facilities.
Predicated upon China’s assertive actions through the South China Sea, the US and Philippines have commenced to solidify a new military relationship. This will include an agreement allowing the US to build facilities at five Philippine military bases, spreading American troops, planes and ships throughout the island nation. These initiatives, some regional analysts argue, may very well tip the balance of power in the South China Sea region.
The Chinese development of artificial islands has continued unabated. The islands are developing into air and sea facilities that can be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities, as well as bases for nuclear armed submarines and an expansion of the Chinese Navy. China interprets the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in a most arbitrary manner. China’s assertiveness as exhibited in the artificial island building, pervasive use of fishing fleets as a naval auxiliary, as well as aggressive behaviour over territorial disputes, have raised serious concerns with other regional nations in the South China Sea. It must be appreciated that seafaring commercial nations such as Japan, Australia and India, have strategic economic interests in the maritime commercial routes that crisscross the South China Sea, as does the US. The South China Sea is a recognized international waterway and not the Sea of Okhotsk. China’s recent initiatives have brought about the attention of the Obama Administration, as well as regional partners who consider China’s expansionist initiatives as a direct threat to freedom of navigation, seagoing commerce, the energy supply route all of which have a direct influence upon the greater regional security.
A Proxy War by China’s Naval Auxiliary – the Commercial Fishing Fleet
The expansion of China’s fishing fleet is to feed its massive population of 1.3 billion, and to provide further subtle and not so subtle uses. China’s commercial fishing fleet is employed to assert presence and control over disputed waters, tiny reefs and atolls that pepper the South China Sea. The presence of Chinese commercial fishermen operating in and around the Spratly and Paracel Islands bolsters Chinese territorial claims to these areas. In the case of the Spratly Islands, Chinese fishermen have been helping to deliver supplies and maintain Chinese presence in the Spratly chain. One Chinese fishermen noted, “the government paid the boat owner 180,000 yuan ($37,500) to go to the Spratlys.” He further stated, “we were there for two weeks. They didn’t care whether we fished or not, they just wanted us there.” Recently, Beijing began operating a lighthouse on the man-made island on Subi Reef in the Spratly’s and concerned observers have expressed that having such facilities in disputed waters can boost China’s claim of sovereignty. Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor at the De La Salle University in Manila, stated that, “strategically, China is trying to create a civilian veneer for its illegal reclamation activities and occupation of contested features in high seas. China hopes that this way it can eventually achieve acquiescence from the international community on its de facto occupation of contested features.”
Similar to the fishing fleet of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Chinese commercial fishermen provide on-site intelligence gathering to its Coast Guard as well as the Chinese Navy. In so doing, the commercial ships blur “the line between peaceful, commercial activity and military muscle-flexing.” As noted by Professor of Strategy James Holmes, “it used to be [that] the flag followed trade, helping you acquire colonies; now, the [Chinese] flag follows fishing, helping you acquire indisputable sovereignty.”
Concerned over China’s artificial island building program, aggressive commercial fishing operations, expanding territorial claims and regional muscle flexing, many countries around the region are rightly concerned. The concern is manifested through diplomatic demarches, announcements, enhanced maritime patrolling, as well as military visits and exercises with American forces and other regional partners. A less subtle manifestation of the growing tension is that, “countries around the region have begun seizing, ramming, or destroying each other’s fishing boats amid claims of poaching and territorial encroachment. Australia demolished Vietnamese clam fishers in 2014, as Palau did a year later. Indonesia’s destruction of a Chinese fishing boat in 2015, sparked the ire of Beijing, and in March 2016 Indonesia’s government formally protested the presence of Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard vessels in its waters. Just this spring, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador over what it called the illegal encroachment by 100 China-flag fishing vessels. The Chinese coast guard rammed a Philippine fishing boat in March and a Vietnamese vessel, too. Also in March 2016, Vietnam seized what it called a ‘disguised’ Chinese fishing boat.”
It appears that China’s large and increasingly aggressive commercial fishing fleets, represent the eyes and ears of the Chinese Navy and Coast Guard, and concomitantly provide a geopolitical weapon employed by Beijing’s leadership. China’s fishing fleet serves as a surrogate for China’s Navy and bolsters China’s claims to disputed areas of the South China Sea, particularly with the countries of Vietnam and the Philippines. Some observers have noted China’s use of their fishing fleet “as a way of gradually imposing its maritime claims.” China’s strategy is a simple but steady progression, step-by-incremental step, to increase its influence and subsequently effective control over those disputed areas while avoiding any potential escalation to military conflict. The situation is reminiscent of what happened during the clash between China and Vietnam in the 1974 conflict over the Paracel Islands where the Chinese fishing fleet were the first responders, assisting the then underequipped Chinese Navy against Vietnamese forces. This script, albeit 42 years old, appears to have been dusted off and replayed in the present tensions between China and the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal.
As a US Naval war College professor of strategy noted, “in contrast to a naval presence that could have conveyed belligerence, the trawlers gave China a low-profile means to back up its territorial claims.”
Awaiting Important Decision at the Hague
The ongoing tensions in the South China Sea could escalate in the near future. The Philippine government has sought international arbitration in their dispute with China. It is anticipated that the permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court of Justice in The Hague will decide upon the Philippine central complaint that China’s occupation and creation of artificial islands in the South China sea, which directly impacts upon the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone violates the 1982 UNCLOS, as agreed-upon and signed by both China and the Philippines. Although it is expected that the Tribunal will decide in favour of the Philippines, the Chinese government, warned in 2013 when the case was submitted for decision, it would not recognize the tribunal’s ruling. This is predicated on China’s claims of “indisputable sovereignty” over the territory and that it rejects “arbitration as ‘a political provocation in the guise of law.’” Many Asian analysts view that China’s aggressive initiatives, including the illegal construction of airfields, docks and military installations, sums up their political stance – possession is supreme to international law.