It has been said that China’s policies are developed in terms of decades, which might be in contrast to other countries that seem to be fixated on issues relevant to the next election cycle. The South China Sea policy may be just one of those examples.
Territorial disputes in the South China Sea go back over 200 years between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. The most public and vocal among them are China and Vietnam. On May 2, 2014 Vietnamese and Chinese ships collided while China was in the process of maneuvering an oil rig in the area.
Just recently, China issued a formal complaint against the U.S. for flying P-8 surveillance aircraft over the area. While the plane was warned several times to leave, the warnings were ignored. U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris told Time that,
“So far, beyond words of warning to those getting too close to what China contends is its territory, it has only dredging gear, bulldozers and graders to enforce its claim. So the U.S. is ignoring it. But that, Pentagon officials believe, is all but certain to change. And as it changes, the stakes, and resulting tensions, will grow.”
The stakes are already high; considering that in addition to control over strategic islands and important shipping routes in the area, there are significant amounts of oil and gas deposits. The disputed area also contains valuable fishing zones that create regular tensions between China and the Philippines.
In considering the situation over the South China Sea area, it might be instructive to review what happened during the Falklands Conflict, which resulted in a brief war between Britain and Argentina. Similar to the South China Sea, the Falkland Islands and other nearby areas are the subject of disputed ownership, primarily between Argentina and Britain. In April 1982 Argentina invaded and took control of the Falklands. Shortly thereafter, with coordinated support from U.S. and international community, Britain deployed military assets to the area and successfully regained control. After weeks of fighting with losses on both sides, Argentina surrendered control of the islands, but did not drop its claim.
During the conflict, the United States offered to help Argentina come to a peaceful solution. However, Argentina refused and the U.S. subsequently restricted the sale of arms to the country. While this alone may not have severely hurt Argentina’s prospects for success, I am sure that the lesson was not lost on China. The lesson was clear – any credible military capability must be able to supply itself and avoid being cut off, as Argentina was.
Over the last decade, China has ramped up its military spending. A 2014 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute had some interesting comments with respect to this. While their report specifically excludes China because a lack of reliable data, their comments were worth noting,
“China’s military spending more than quadrupled in real terms between 2000 and 2012, and the country has engaged in major efforts to develop its domestic industry. As a result, since the late 2000s China has been decreasing its arms imports in favour of domestic procurement. In addition, China’s arms exports have grown substantially in the past decade, to the extent that the country is now the fifth largest arms exporter, just after France.”
A 2013 New York Times article discussing China’s arms industry quoted a retired People’s Liberation Army general commenting about China’s competitiveness, saying that,
“besides pricing, Chinese companies had another advantage: they do not “make demands over other governments’ status and internal policies.” He added: “Our policy of noninterference applies here. Whoever is in the government, whoever has diplomatic status with us, we can talk about arms sales with them.”
I find this illuminating. This view acknowledges the strategic importance of a country’s ability to produce its own military hardware in addition to the competitive advantage that a policy of ‘noninterference’ offers to export markets for the same products.
Another lesson that China may have learned from the Falklands War is the importance of having military capabilities that extend beyond the mainland – namely air and naval assets. Argentina faced limitations in its ability to defend the islands directly from the mainland, as their aircraft could not stay in the air long enough to counter British attacks. Most recently, China and Vietnam have been hard at work building artificial islands in the South China Sea to house military installations that include airfields, barracks and defensive positions.
At some point, there will be a ‘Falklands Moment’; a point at which the passive aggressive, indirect and subtle measures will be replaced with a more direct action, one that will redefine the balance of power in the South China Sea.
There is an interesting piece by Felix K. Chang at the Foreign Policy Research Institute that I would recommend reading. It offers some insight into the challenges that geography would create for the U.S. if a conflict were to occur. The map below is from the article.