China recently concluded a marathon naval exercise in the South China Sea on January 7th, another sign of its drive to tighten its control on the Asia-Pacific region.
These drills, initially planned for early 2020, were delayed due to COVID-19 but not canceled, and neither is China's long term ambition.
For many years, China has been working to gain control of the highly strategic South China Sea. Located along the western Pacific Ocean, which borders Southeast Asia, it borders China, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The South China Sea is a region of enormous geostrategic and economic importance. One-third of the world's maritime shipping passes through it, carrying over $3.7 trillion in trade each year. Thus, it is one of the busiest areas of commercial shipping traffic.
It is an enormous area measuring 3.6 million square kilometers, larger than India and more than twice the Gulf of Mexico's size. The area also contains lucrative fisheries and massive reserves of undiscovered oil and gas. There are numerous coral reefs, atolls, and archipelagos scattered all over the waterway. The main islands include the Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly Islands, Pratas, and the Natuna Islands.
However, there are several disputes, each of which involves a different collection of countries bordering the South China Sea. The disputes' focus is on controlling various South China Sea Islands, maritime boundaries, and China's "nine-dash" line.
The South China Sea is a strategic trade route for crude oil from the Middle East & Africa, through the Strait of Malacca, to the Asia Pacific region.
More than 30% of global maritime crude oil trade or about 15 million barrels per day passes through the South China Sea.
The shipping lanes in the South China Sea connect East Asia with Western Asia, Africa, India, and Europe via the Taiwan and Luzon Straits in the northeast, the Strait of Malacca in the southwest, and the Sunda & Lombok Straits in the south.
China consumed over 14.5 million barrels of oil per day in 2019. Out of the 14.5 million barrels, it imported about 10.1 million barrels from other nations. Therefore, China's foreign oil dependency ratio is at 72%. Around 80% of China's crude oil imports pass through this waterway, mainly from the Middle East and Africa.
With China's economy expected to grow by 8.4% in 2021, its energy demand will increase tremendously.
China has been working hard to increase its energy production. According to the US Energy Information Administration, China produced approximately 5 million barrels per day in 2019.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, in March 2019, directed its energy giants, CNOOC, PetroChina, and Sinopec, to spend $77 billion on increasing domestic output. However, that amount wouldn't be enough to meet such a goal. That is where the South China Sea comes in.
China wants to control the strategic trade route because it will continue to import vast amounts of energy, more than any other country, from Africa and the Middle East.
The Gateway to Maritime Trade
The South China Sea is among the world's most strategic ocean regions. It is immensely rich in natural resources, containing about 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Even more importantly, a third of global maritime trade flows through it, valued at $3.7 trillion a year. Over 40% of China's total trade in goods and 60% of its maritime trade passes through the waterway.
China's dependency on energy imports is the crucial reason it held the naval exercises in the South China Sea and why it is determined to control this trade route.
Apart from energy imports, China also views the South China Sea as the main sea route to fulfill its Belt and Road vision in Africa and Eurasia.
Nevertheless, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Brunei claim parts of this sea. Their claims are based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The law states that a country's territorial borders extend 200 nautical miles from its coast, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
On the other hand, China continually states that it has historical claims to the South China Sea dating back to expeditions in the 1400s. As a result, it marked the area they claim using a bewildering delineation called the "nine-dash line." The nine-dash line places almost the entire South China Sea, an area about India's size, under Chinese control. Beijing's chief focus is on the Spratly Islands primarily because they lie geographically at the center of the South China Sea.
The stakes are high because any country that can claim the Spratlys may have legal grounds for extending its EEZ to surrounding waters and islands.
Seizing a Vital Sea Gate
Ever since Xi Jinping took over as general secretary of the Communist Party of China, his administration has been militarizing the South China Sea.
In two island chains, the Spratlys and Paracels, China built a series of human-made islands installed with antiaircraft batteries and fighter jets.
Since Japan's defeat in World War 2, America has defended and maintained peace in this vital trade route through its powerful Navy. In response to China's aggressive action, The US and its allies regularly deploy warships and aircraft to the region. Their aim is to conduct freedom of navigation and overflight operations in the South China Sea.
China understands the power the US and its allies can wield if they form a naval blockade in the South China Sea. As such, China's military and paramilitary routinely harass such vessels and aircraft. Beijing knows that its economic and national security is inextricably linked to the South China Sea.
What China is doing in the South China Sea is the same thing Imperial Japan did in the early 1940s. Between 1930 and 1941, Japan built a shadow empire of economic alliances across Southeast Asia. The shadow empire was the base of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere to dominate the region. China is working on the same concept, as Imperial Japan, through the Belt and Road initiative.
At the start of World War 2, Japan declared the South China Sea as its territory. It also established military bases in the same archipelagos China is militarizing today. For instance, in the Spratly Islands, a Japanese base on Itu Aba served as a staging base for its invasions of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
By constructing artificial islands atop coral reefs in the Spratlys and installing missile batteries in the Paracels, China is establish a new strategic sea gate in the region. Whoever controls these vital sea gate controls one-third of the world's maritime trade.
As its energy demand grows, expect China to continue tightening its grip over the valuable waterway, challenging other nations' territorial claims.
© 2021 Meziechi Nwogu
MG Singh from UAE on January 23, 2021:
The Chinese have played their cards adroitly and whatever has happened in South China Sea is with the tacit approval of the United States. From the time of Richard Nixon and even earlier President Johnson when China was allowed to go nuclear, the Americans had treated China with kid gloves. I remember reading a statement by President Duterte of the Philippines and he had said if America was serious about controlling the South China Sea they could have sent five aircraft carriers there and taking over the area which they never did. Worse the last two American presidents had compromised themselves with China. Trumps' daughter got five or six patents for her products from China and made millions. The president's son has got question questionable dealings with China. The American game was clear, oppose Russia and Mollycoddle China. Unfortunately by spreading the china virus china has knocked the bottom out of the western world and the USA.