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South China Sea: China’s Unfolding Strategic Blueprint for Full-Spectrum Dominance

Paper No. 5746                                         Dated 21-Jul-2014

By Dr Subhash Kapila

(Observations made at Round Table Conference at Danang, Vietnam May 20 2014 by Dr Subhash Kapila following the International Workshop on May 19 2014.)

South China Sea has emerged as an explosive regional and global flashpoint endangering the security and stability of the wider Indo Pacific region. This arises mainly from China’s propensity to use force to settle territorial disputes.

Paracel Islands under full military occupation of China and Spratlys Islands under partial military occupation of China coupled with greater maritime operational cruises in South China Sea by Chinese PLA Navy including its Aircraft Carrier are evidence of China’s unfolding strategy of expanded maritime dominance of this crucial Sea.

China has displayed no indicators to suggest conflict de-escalation or conflict-resolution in the South China Sea disputes with its ASEAN neighbours.

On the contrary, the May 2014 incidents of China placing its oil-drilling rigs in South China Sea in Vietnamese EEZ and its ongoing engineering efforts to create new ‘artificial islands’ in proximity of Philippines holdings in Spratly Islands pointedly highlight that China is unfolding a new strategic blueprint in the South China Sea in which de-escalation of conflict or conflict resolution is not on China’s agenda. China’s ‘island grabbing’ in the South China Sea now seems to be replaced by a new aggressive policy of creating ‘artificial islands’ not only for wider EEZ claims but also to be fortified to facilitate greater military control of this strategic maritime expanse.

China’s Unfolding Strategic Blueprint in the South China Sea: Full-Spectrum Dominance

China’s unfolding strategic blueprint in the South China Sea needs to be viewed from the prism of China adding military muscle to its Nine Dash Claim Line which virtually encompasses the whole of South China Sea and also beefing-up and operationalising Chinese PLA Navy maritime strengths to add military muscle to China’s declaration of South China Sea as China’s ‘Core National Interest ‘to be defended by even going to war.

China with such enhanced militarisation of its intentions betrays the following military aims in the South China Sea:

  • Full-Spectrum Dominance of South China Sea by China to be achieved as an imperative for China’s offensive and defensive strategies.
  • In the overall end-game China would like to transform the South China Sea into “China’s Inland Sea”.

China declared an ADIZ over international waters of the East China Sea in a bid to checkmate Japan over the Senkaku Islands dispute.

China in a bid to achieve ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ over the South China Sea can logically be expected to declare a similar ADIZ over the international waters of the South China Sea.

China’s unfolding strategy of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ over the South China Sea is not confined to checkmating Vietnam and the Philippines but also checkmating the United States maritime dominance of the Western Pacific and in a conflict scenario strangulating the economies of US Allies in the Pacific, more specifically Japan.

Regional Strategic Fall-out of China’s Unfolding South China Sea Strategy

Briefly, the regional strategic fall-out of the enlarged Chinese South China Sea strategy can be summed-up as follows:

  • Severe “Strategic Distrust of” China. China’s aggressive moves in South China Sea of using military force or threat of using force to settle issues in its favour have generated a severe ‘Regional Distrust’ of China and thereby impinging its political image,
  • China as a Regional Military Threat.  China’s is not only in conflict with Vietnam and the Philippines on maritime sovereignty issues but also with three other ASEAN nations, With China now operationalising an expanded maritime presence in the Southern Segment of the South China Sea, Indonesia is also now getting concerned. Overall there is a growing disquiet in South East Asia that China is emerging as a ‘Regional Military Threat”.
  • Regional Arms Race. China has ignited by its aggressive maritime moves in the South China Sea a ‘regional arms race’ of naval build-up in the region, particularly submarines.

All of these three factors contribute to highlighting the strategic reality that China is not a benign stakeholder in regional security and stability of the South China Sea region and South East Asia.

Global Strategic Fall-out of China’s Unfolding South China Sea Strategy.

China’s unfolding of an enlarged South China Sea Strategy of aiming for a “Full-Spectrum Dominance” of the South China Sea has not gone unnoticed and generated global implications.

China’s ‘Full-Spectrum Dominance’ of South China Sea amounts to throwing a :strategic gauntlet” to the United States which has vital national security interests in the South China Sea both for its own continued global dominance and also the security and stability of its regional allies and friends in the Asia Pacific.

Global fall-out can be summed up briefly as follows:

  • United States Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific generated by China’s outsized strategic ambitions in the Western Pacific.
  • Strategic polarisation against China is beginning to shape-up in Asia
  • Enlarged ‘strategic constructs’ like Indo Pacific as opposed to the earlier Asia Pacific are taking shape aimed at  integration of Pacific and Indian Ocean strategies both at the regional level and the global level.
  • United States military establishment is reported to have finalised contingency plans to militarily intervene if China attacks the Philippines or Japan. An attack on Vietnam could possibly draw the same US response

Japan’s Nuclear Weaponisation would be a Logical Outcome of China’s Full-Spectrum Dominance of the South China Sea

Much that Japan as a nation abhors resort to nuclear weaponisation, China’s ‘Full-Spectrum Dominance’ of the South China Sea and the East China Sea tangentially may push Japan into acquisition of nuclear weapons to safeguard its national security and survival.

Let it not be forgotten that because of heightened perceptions of the ‘China Threat’, India was pushed into nuclear weaponisation in 1998 despite India holding its hand since 1974 when it first carried out its peaceful nuclear explosion tests.

Major Concluding Observations/Perspectives

Drawing attention to the Perspectives contained in my Paper presented on the previous day the following were emphasised or attention drawn to:

  • Sequential and unremitting brinkmanship and aggressive provocations by China in the South China Sea region has resulted in converting the South China Sea as an “Explosive Powder-Keg on a Short Fuse.”
  • “Intense Nationalism” has been unleashed in victim-countries of China’s political and military coercion like Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan making the Western Pacific additionally “Combustible”
  • China is gambling on wrong premises of United States power being on a decline and thereby giving China leeway to go ahead with its unfolding strategy of “Full Spectrum Dominance of the South China Sea”
  • China is gambling on the wrong premise that Japan and India as contending Asian emerging powers may not strategically coalesce.

China seems to be oblivious to the lessons of the 20th Century where expansionist powers resorting to use of military force or threats of force or attempting to upset the balance-of-power ended up with ignominious ends.