Evident from contemporary times, the center of politics has been shifted from Europe towards Asia, where rising China is seen as colliding with competing interests of the predominant USA. The South China Sea has provided a staged platform where various actors are involved to play a pivotal role in holding an influence; still we say the principal players are China and the US. Here, we will be elucidating how China’s behavior is displaying claims over the waterways as a defensive realist state. Also, examines USA’s offensive behavior with regard to Chinese claims on the same waterways.
The South China Sea is one of the most important as well as territorially disputed regions around the world because of its strategic significance. The importance is substantiated as it’s an important communication lane that connects the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. What’s the principal value of sea lines? The South China Sea represents the escalating China-USA rivalry in different domains; political, military, and economic. In the post-cold war era, we have seen that international order is being changed by rising China.
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Also, the perception prevailed globally, the USA considered China’s growing capabilities a major threat to US dominance and control of main areas around the Western Pacific. However, the US and China alone do not possess the competition in the region, but Taiwan, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Japan also play a pivotal role in shaping the political, and economic domains of the South China Sea.
While using the lens, this research asserts the Realist perspective in general and Structural realism specifically. In this paradigm, the international structure is the ordering principle of foreign relations. It states that the makeup of the state is dependent on external factors. However, Defensive Realism implies a low-risk action and wants states to balance in the international system to maximize the security of its own. Offensive Realism, expects states to have an expansionist strategy and maximize power on the expense of others for their own survival. In a nutshell, my Hypothesis is “In the South China Sea, the Offensive strategy of the USA along with other actors is countered by the Defensive strategy of China.”
Historical Claim of China
The real conflict in the South China Sea erupts from the base of the sovereign authority of the islands in waterways, especially Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly and Paracel Islands. However, China asserts its sovereignty over the whole region as its historical rights date back to Qing and Han Dynasties. China has been extracting economic gains from the parts of Sea Lines, as the region contains 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas since 1948. China’s claim on the 9 dash line (which almost covers all areas of South China Sea) is a customary law that has evolved throughout the history of Chinese life and did not settle down with the emergence of 20th Century UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Law of Seas).
Also, China overruled the International Court ruling which was in favor of the Philippines in 2015. These historical claims in light of recent UNCLOS articles have created a security dilemma. Chinese military buildup which was intended to increase its security has created a sense of insecurity among its neighbors. The Southeast neighbors especially Taiwan, the Philippines are creating alliances with the USA and are seen as the biggest impediment to China’s Rise. Also, it will jeopardize China’s regional interests.
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Strategy of USA v/s China
In the South China Sea region, the USA appears to be an offensive state owing to its actions. China’s claim to the sea poses a threat to the international system, hegemony, trade, and regional alliances of the USA. The actions/measures taken by the USA in this regard appear to be offensive and to counter the threat of China challenging status quo. Firstly, the Pivot to Asia policy in which the US secured its position through bilateral relations with ASEAN states. Also, making security-related alliances such as QUAD (USA, India, Japan, and Australia) which is somehow tagged as Asian NATO.
Secondly, having AUKUS (Australia, USA, and UK) in the region marks an offensive strategy (military exercises as well as testing of new technology) in waterways. However, these alliances also promoted US-based trade where China was already exercising her monopoly. Also, the USA is supporting the Philippines in the stance of naming the region as Western Philippines Sea. In the pursuit of dominance and expansion in the region, the USA has promoted the policy of Open Navigation across all seaways of communication to remind China about its strength and might.
In the South China Sea region, China appears to be a defensive state. China’s actions enumerate the security-seeking attitude through self-help rather than hegemony in the region. Firstly, China adopted a strategy of engagement with other claimants of the waterways during the de-escalation period following the Mischief reef incident late in 1990s. This strategy follows a hide and bite formula to cut US influence over them for incentives. Secondly, China in my opinion is not an expansionist power, so it promotes its actions as self-defense because of hostile neighbors as well as informal US presence in the region. Other than engagement, China pursued a strategy of cooperation by entering into trade agreements with members of the ASEAN community.
China opened the door of diplomacy towards the Philippines, Japan, and Malaysia particularly to slow down the dominance of the USA in the region. In a similar category, the promotion of BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) provided a strong pathway of cooperation as well as a response to the United States’ vision of FOIP (Free and Open Indo-Pacific). China also incorporated ASEAN members in a hallmark of global trade under the strategy of Strings of Pearl’s policy. Subsequently, the trade incentives will strengthen the cooperation between ASEAN members and regional rivals i.e. China to subdue offensive actions of the USA in the region.
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In the South China Sea, the policies adopted by both giants are reflected as a new Cold War or Resurgence of Great power Rivalry. China’s proactive behavior is within acceptable bounds but the USA pursuing the strategy to withhold the environment through military discourse can create impediments in the growth of the region. China will desire to distance its neighbors from US influence in order to gain the momentum in her own hands, but it also contains the possibility of China’s offensive foreign policy in this regard.
As we have already seen in the Sino-India conflict on the territory of Ladakh. However, if China succeeds in displacing US primacy, the dynamics of the world will change and all claimants will face new realities about the region. Hence, in the coming decades, the region is likely to become a more contested and important strategic location.
The author is an Undergraduate student enrolled in Bachelors in International Relations at National Defense University, Islamabad. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.