“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat.
And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”
“Even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually” Jimi Hendrix
Robert Kaplan, one of the world’s foremost experts on China, has stated “The South China Sea will be the 21st Century’s defining battleground.” The obsession with supremacy in the South China Sea is certainly not a new phenomenon in the realms of international security and maritime strategy. In opinionated discussions related to naval warfare, prominent political scientists and military strategists have been addressing the geopolitical and military significance of the region for decades. For example, the enlightening 1997 article “The Chinese Way”, written in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists by Professor Chalmers Johnson of the University of California-San Diego, noted significantly increased defense budgets and expenditures in the region. In addition, the article eludes to the fact that China had claimed the entire South China Sea and would use its naval forces to counter any encroachment.
The argument for an increased U.S. naval presence in East Asia is certainly not without precedent. This contested aquatic region has tremendous geopolitical, strategic and economic significance. While, the Persian Gulf has immense importance and global recognition due to its strategic location in the Middle East, as well its significance to global commerce, industry and sought after oil, the South China Sea is crucially important to nations seeking to obtain their economic riches and geopolitical advantages.
The South China Sea is geographically located near the Pacific Ocean and encompasses an area of 1.4 million square miles (3.5 million square kilometers). As a semi-closed area, the South China Sea extends from the Singapore Strait to the Taiwan Strait, with China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Taiwan surrounding it. In terms of economic value, fishery stocks and potential fossil fuel reserves are two major commodities that may spark an armed conflict, even to the point of nuclear confrontation. As a rich source of the region’s staple diet, fish, the sea guarantees a steady flow of food to the countries of the region. Control and supremacy of the sea would also assure claiming the much touted hydrocarbon reserves in the seabed, possibly exceeding those of the OPEC nations such as Iraq and Kuwait. The conquest of this vast resource would virtually assure energy independence and high monetary returns for those that would gain supremacy over the South China Sea. Thus, seizing the opportunity to gain dominance will lead to control and manipulation of vital food and energy resources, economic wealth and geopolitical power in the region.
A scenario of regional and maritime domination and control could lead to the partial or total exclusion of adjacent nation-states to access any food or natural resources derived from a sea ruled with an iron hand; leading to a massive complex humanitarian catastrophe of immense proportions from malnutrition and starvation, limitations in energy production, and economic collapse. These factors make the South China Sea a national security priority for nations in the region, including one of the world’s superpowers, China.
The dependence of China and other regional nations surrounding the South China Sea on the Strait of Malacca is analogous in geopolitical and economic terms, to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Approximately one -third of all global trade funnels through the strait and also serves as a conduit for raw materials and energy needs for China and other adjacent nation-states. Such potential dominance in any region, leads to a high-stakes game of brinkmanship, and at least the possibility of a regional war which could conceivably escalate to engulf nation-states external to the regional sphere. Tensions and skirmishes have the propensity to evolve into armed conflict and full-scale war, and apprehensive leaders and military planners in such a contested region serve as the facilitators for disaster.
China continues to assert sovereignty by constructing man made islands using sand dredged from the sea bottom and these artificial islands could be militarized. China has even affirmed its desire to have a military presence on these islands; however, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, also professes the use of these land masses to facilitate commerce via shipping lanes and to protect Chinese fishing and other vessels from piracy.
China will never cease its quest for supremacy and its perceived “ownership” of the South China Sea, as the legitimacy and structure of the Chinese government is based on nationalism and achievement of the “Chinese Dream”. The Chinese regime continues to vehemently assert their perceived “right” to the South China Sea, and it forges ahead with plans and operations that could lead to naval warfare and conflict escalation. The knowledge that China possesses formidable naval capacity and capabilities, including nuclear-capable ballistic missile submarines, is, indeed, disconcerting at the very least.
As we examine and evaluate the “submarine factor”, it is evident that China’s submarines have no practical value in its disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines. Essentially, nuclear ballistic missile capable submarines serve as a deterrent against thermonuclear war. Without doubt, the primary reason that China possesses nuclear-capable submarines is to deter an American attack, although India’s nuclear weapons are also a consideration for Beijing. Nuclear capable submarines are capable of deep dive capabilities and shorter launch to target times. While China’s submarine capabilities may appear worrisome to some, sudden deployment from port in a geopolitical crisis would serve as a critical indicator to the US and Western allies, and its submarine fleet still remains somewhat noisy and detectable.
China has already demonstrated its aggression at sea in several instances, such as the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters claimed by both countries in the region and an ominous presence and military mobilization exercises which have been monitored by military and intelligence assets. A report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, indicates that Chinese SSBNs are able to target portions of the U.S. from strategic operational positions near the Chinese coast. China’s Global Times published an unprecedented report that revealed a nuclear missile strike on the western U.S. with JL-2 missiles could generate up to 12 million American fatalities. The Obama administration and senior U.S. naval officials have not retorted to China’s claims of a potentially devastating nuclear threat, which included graphics showing radiological plumes and collateral damage induced by radiation. The possibilities of China’s anti-satellite strategies to disable communications and intelligence-gathering capabilities must also be taken seriously.
Most assuredly, the South China Sea would serve as an obvious arena for the projection of Chinese power, including conventional and, potentially, nuclear scenarios.
China’s South Sea naval facilities have seen significant upgrading and expansion, such as the facilities on Hainan, and the nuclear submarine base at Longpo serves as the first nuclear submarine base in the South China Sea. The base also includes a submarine tunnel that is part of an underwater complex of nuclear facilities on Hainan. Also, Chinese-Russian wargames are worrisome, which adds to the concerns of nuclear confrontation and consequences globally. The Chinese have asserted their right to defend its territories, which in their view, includes the South China Sea, and they have stated verbally, and by their aggressive actions, that they will continue to pursue their strategic goals despite the threat of confrontation and conflict.
Many of the issues in contention in the South China Sea will remain unresolved for, probably, several years to come. We must remain balanced, and not overzealous in our approaches to assisting with conflict resolution in the area. We must apply reasonable diplomacy, without stirring up a hornet’s nest that would serve to be counterproductive and enhance animosities. However, the US, its allies, and other concerned nation-states must not refrain from being ever so vigilant and proactive in achieving peaceful resolution, while at the same time maintaining our national defense and security postures.