THINK TANK | China’s Strategic Interests in the South China Sea by Weifeng Zhou
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THINK TANK | China’s Strategic Interests in the South China Sea by Weifeng Zhou

By Weifeng Zhou

Over the past 30 years China’s rapid economic growth has led to a rising energy demand. As of 2012 China became the world’s second-largest oil consumer and importer behind the US. China had no choice but to go beyond its borders search for oil around the world in order to satisfy its growing energy needs, despite being the world’s fourth-largest oil producer. According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), China overtook the US as the world’s largest oil importer in 2013, a position occupied by the latter for almost 40 years. Against such a background, ensuring energy supplies remains at the top of the Chinese foreign policy agenda, as it is important to maintain stable economic growth and domestic stability. 

THINK TANK | China’s Strategic Interests in the South China Sea by Weifeng Zhou

Image Attribute: LNG Carrier Galea / Source: Wikimedia Commons

As energy security is fully linked to China’s national economic security it has become an integral part of China’s global strategy. Due to its ever increasing thirst for oil, there is a consensus among scholars in Chinese Studies and International Relations that China as the world’s top oil importer has affirmatively strategic interests in the South China Sea. And Beijing’s assertive move over its sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea has importance for its energy, economic and national security. In fact, the essence of energy security rests on two interrelated and interconnected elements: the energy supply from the Persian Gulf and energy route security. And both of them are of importance for China’s energy security.


Over the past decade China has endeavoured to diversify its energy suppliers and routes in order to reduce its heavy dependence on Persian-Gulf oil and the Strait of Malacca, and to consolidate its energy security by developing new energy routes: the Myanmar-China pipelines and the Iran-Pakistan-China pipelines, transporting Persian-Gulf oil over the Indian Ocean without passing through the Straits of Malacca. The first route has been successfully completed and operated and the second route has been planned. The narrow Straits of Malacca, the most strategic checkpoint and most critical channel connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans, has economic, political and strategic importance for China. For a long time, the Straits are co-managed exclusively by Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and they refuse the participation and intervention of any other country in their management. Following the 11 September attack, the US was, however, granted the use of the Changi Naval Base in Singapore to enhance anti-terror intelligence and security cooperation with the Straits surrounding countries. The US military presence in the Straits of Malacca allows Washington to exert significant influence over China’s sea-route security. In particular, it can pose a severe threat to China’s energy and economic security in the event of a conflict with the US. During the 10th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, China’s Defence Minister Liang Guanglie proposed for the first time that ‘China needs to take a more active role over the management of the Strait of Malacca’.This explicitly reflects China’s growing concerns over its trade and energy-route security.

As sovereignty over the South China Sea involves China’s economic, energy, and national security and is a core interest, it is not difficult to see that China cannot afford to lose the ‘sovereignty claims battle’ over the South China Sea. First, China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea will completely resolve its ‘Malacca dilemma’, which has existed for many years. China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea enables the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to establish military bases over the Paracels and Spratlys as the strategic spots safeguarding its trade and energy routes through the Strait of Malacca. Apart from Yulin naval base located near the South China Sea, the PLA established a massive new naval base in Hainan Island in 2013 for its nuclear submarines and second aircraft carrier. And the PLA’s two naval bases in the South China Sea can provide any necessary military and maritime support for advancing and defending its strategic interests in the area. Secondly, the deployment of China’s naval and air forces on islands and in waters of the South China Sea will be of importance for advancing and defending its strategic interests in the surrounding region: (1) effectively fortifying its trade and energy-route security in the South China Sea; (2) significantly offsetting any potential threat to its sea-route security, mainly from the US Navy presence in the Strait of Malacca; and (3) solidly protecting any further action to explore oil and gas resources, undertake maritime patrols and assert its sovereignty over the South China Sea. According to a report in the New York Times, China has, as of June 2015, rapidly built seven artificial islands over the disputed Spratlys in the space of 18 months, accounting for over 2000 acres in size, as large as 1,500 football fields. In addition, China has built airstrips, ports, helipads and other infrastructures in the artificial islands and will make them new strategic points for protecting its sea-route security and asserting its sovereignty over the disputed South China Sea.

China’s claim over the South China Sea involves its national security interests. Its sovereignty over the South China Sea would enable it to exercise great influence over sea-route security of East Asia. This would have a direct impact on Japanese and South Korean sea route (trade and energy) security, as most of the oil imports of these two powerful North-East Asian economies come from the Persian Gulf, passing through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea (near the Spratlys). Since China has territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyudao (Senkaku) Islands, dominance over the South China Sea allows Beijing to have a strategic chip and leverage over the Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry in East Asia, implying that it will greatly enhance Beijing’s strategic position over the East China Sea disputes as well as in its competition for regional leadership. From a Chinese perspective, the control of the South China Sea is a vital key to resolving the ‘Japan problem’, including the East China Sea disputes and Sino-Japan strategic rivalry. While China continues the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Filipino president Benigno Aquino III visited Japan in June 2015 to seek Japan’s support in the South China Sea disputes, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated that Japan would offer its ‘utmost support’ for the Philippines against China’s aggressive action. Soon, the two countries held their first joint naval manoeuvres in the South China Sea and Japan further expressed its willingness to join the US in maritime air patrols in the area reflecting its strategic importance for its economic, energy and national security. Japan’s attitude towards the South China Sea disputes also reflects Tokyo’s growing concerns over Beijing’s dominance over the South China Sea.

The US has traditionally played a leading role in Asian affairs for decades and still maintains a dominant influence in the Asia-Pacific region. In particular, the US military presence in East Asia is of importance for its power projection in the region.The US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances are two pillars of its leadership in the region that constitute an integral part of its hegemonic power at a global level. But this has changed with the awakening of the sleeping dragon. China’s rising power and influence is reshaping the regional strategic balance and will greatly undermine the existing regional security architecture the US has shaped and dominated since the Cold War. China’s rise as a global power has been a reality and it is the most prominent event of the 21st century in creating a new regional order. In response to the changing strategic realities in East Asia, Washington has devised a mixed strategy to hedge, rebalance and contain China’s growing power and influence by using its diplomatic, cultural, economic and military means in order to maintain its dominant power in the region. No doubt Washington views Beijing as great challenge to its dominant power in East Asia while Beijing sees Washington as a major threat to its core interests in the region. Due to the geopolitical and geostrategic considerations, the South China Sea has made it strategically vital for both Beijing and Washington to dominate East Asia, giving rise the Sino-US strategic competition in the South China Sea, which explains the escalating tensions in the area.

From a Chinese perspective, the US military presence in East Asia poses a great threat to its national security, as Washington has adopted a ‘hostile’ strategy to contain China’s rise. China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea would entitle it to build military bases and deploy the PLA navy and air force over the area, greatly enhancing its strategic environment by building a sphere of power and influence in the surrounding region. China’s attempt to secure a stable backyard will considerably fortify its strategic position in the Sino-US rivalry in the region. The 2015 Chinese defence white paper issued by China’s State Council highlighted a new military strategy, moving from a ‘defensive posture’ to a more ‘active defence posture’ and a greater Chinese naval presence in the surrounding region. This is important to advance and protect China’s strategic interests in the South China Sea. Furthermore, China’s dominance over the area should lead to a ‘domino effect’ on the East China Sea disputes. Finally, Beijing would achieve its first island-chain policy to limit US power projection and offset US military influence in the region by sealing off the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea within an arc running from the Aleutians in the north to Borneo in the south. According to the Global Times, ‘If the US’s bottom line is that China has to halt its assertive activities, then a US-China war is inevitable in the South China Sea’. This is one of China’s most influential and popular newspapers and is run by the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper the People’s Daily. It definitively reflects the strategic importance of the South China Sea for China’s national security.

About The Author:

Weifeng Zhou, PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Autonomous University of Madrid

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Published on November 5, 2015