Boosting naval prowess and projecting power as far away as the Middle East are at the center of China’s ambition to fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia. This will be at the back of U.S. President Barack Obama’s mind when he hosts ASEAN leaders at a February 15-16 summit in Sunnylands, California, with his secretary of state John Kerry already urging Southeast Asia to show unity in response to Beijing’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea.
Several developments underscore China’s determination to take the sea route to achieve regional dominance — from its frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and its rapidly expanding submarine fleet, to its recent admission that it is establishing its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, located on the Horn of Africa. The Middle East base at Djibouti represents a transformative moment in its quest for supremacy at sea, a goal highlighted by its official white paper “China’s Military Strategy,” which last summer outlined a plan for the navy to shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection.”
After China’s inroads into strategically located Indian Ocean nations like Sri Lanka and the Maldives, President Xi Jinping’s latest trip to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt point to the broader Chinese ambitions in the Middle East, a region where political turmoil and Russia’s military intervention in Syria are already altering the delicate balance of power. China has thrown down the gauntlet to the U.S. by deciding to set up its base in Djibouti, which serves as the Pentagon’s main intelligence-gathering post for the Arab world and the critical shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
China boasts one of the fastest-growing undersea fleets in the world. It has already surpassed the U.S. submarine fleet in quantity but not quality. But as it works to further expand its force of diesel and nuclear attack submarines, its territorial and maritime assertiveness and muscular actions are prompting neighboring countries, from Japan to India, to strengthen their anti-submarine capabilities.
Beijing’s increasing submarine forays into the Indian Ocean — the bridge between Asia and Europe — draw strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the adjacent South China Sea, where it continues to push its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done before elsewhere.
Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Beijing understands that very well, especially because its claim of historic right over virtually all the resource-endowed South China Sea is weak and legally untenable. China thus has set out to achieve effective control, a key principle in international law for determining legitimate ownership of a territory.
This is exactly the same strategy the People’s Republic employed in the past to advance its territorial claims elsewhere, such as the Himalayas. In fact, no sooner had the communists seized power in Beijing than China began gobbling up the then-independent Tibet — a conquest that enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and changed Asia’s water map. Decades later, the redrawing of national frontiers remains an unfinished task for the rulers in Beijing.
The artificial islands in the South China Sea — a global trade and maritime hub — not only arm China with a great bargaining chip but allow it to forward deploy military forces hundreds of miles from its shores. In the process, China is positioning itself at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.
Indeed, Beijing appears to be using the South China Sea as a testing ground for changing the Asian geopolitical map. To advance its larger geostrategic interests, China is assertively using geoeconomic tools, such as the Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was launched January 16 by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a ceremony in Beijing. The Maritime Silk Road — designed to link China’s eastern coast with the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East — presents itself as a benign-sounding new banner for the country’s “string of pearls” strategy.
Make no mistake: China’s expanding submarine fleet is suited not for Southeast Asia’s shallow sea basin but for the Indian Ocean’s deep, warm waters. This explains why China is setting up a naval hub in Djibouti, building a naval base at Gwadar, Pakistan, and wanting access to port facilities around India, like it has already secured in Sri Lanka.
China’s territorial expansions in the South China Sea, without incurring any international costs, are whetting its growing interest in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This shows that the South China Sea is critical to the contest for influence from the Middle East to the Pacific.
Yet, the Obama administration has focused its concern on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not on finding ways to stop China from altering the status quo in its favor. ASEAN disunity has also aided China’s strategy.
Emboldened by international inaction and a series of crises that have helped divert global attention, Beijing has been feverishly turning low-tide elevations in the South China Sea into small islands by dredging seabed material and then dumping it using pipelines and barges. In the process, it has been creating new “facts on the ground,” including military facilities, for enforcing an air defense identification zone without having to declare one.
China’s militarization of the South China Sea not only threatens freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but is also encouraging aggressive Chinese coastguard patrolling. Hanoi, for example, has accused Chinese patrols of frequently intercepting Vietnamese fishing boats, ramming them, damaging equipment, and beating up crews.
Against this background, the South China Sea has emerged as the symbolic center of the international maritime challenges of the 21st century. The region is important even for countries in the Middle East and Europe because what happens there will impinge on larger maritime security. Indeed, developments in the South China Sea — the world’s newest maritime hot spot — carry the potential of upending even the current liberal world order by permitting brute power to trump rules.
The sea’s centrality to the international maritime order should induce likeminded states to work closely together to positively shape developments, including by ensuring that continued unilateralism is not cost-free. Only sustained pressure can persuade Beijing that its future lies in cooperation and not confrontation.