Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:59 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:59 | SYDNEY

Why the South China Sea matters


Michael Wesley


2 May 2012 11:27

I was somewhat surprised to read Brendan Taylor's matter-of-fact statement that the South China Sea isn't really a vital interest for any of Asia's great powers, except perhaps for China. I'm not so sure about this, for two reasons.

First, the South China Sea is emerging as the Achilles heel in China's 'peaceful rise' strategy. Ever since Zhou Enlai announced that the South China Sea was a 'core interest', its claims to that waterway have stood as a warning to other claimants that perhaps China's regional dominance may not be as benign as Chinese leaders say it will be. Even more alarming for Southeast Asian states than the actual clashes between China and the Philippines and Vietnam is the growing evidence that Beijing has been able to split ASEAN's diplomatic solidarity on the issue.

Why would Asia's other great powers be interested in this? Because the reaction to China's rise and claims by its neighbours, however small, will play a vital role in the future strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific.

If Beijing can convince its neighbours that its growing wealth and military power are benign, it will have advanced a long way towards dominance in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. But if its neighbours remain wary, twinning their closer economic integration with China with tighter defence relations with America, India, Japan and each other, Beijing will simply not have the elbow room to pursue broader dominance.

In other words, America and Asia's second-tier powers need a wary Southeast Asia in order to contest and hedge against China's rising power.

Second, as Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes argue in Red Star Over the Pacific, the South China Sea is a vital arena in the growing naval competition between the American and Chinese navies. They argue that Chinese strategists see the South China Sea as a breakout point from the first island chain into the broader Pacific. It is the only place within the first island chain with the expanse and depth to baffle the American and Japanese navies' capacity to bottle in the Chinese navy.

And in a fascinating comparison of imperial Germany's maritime geography and that of China, they argue convincingly that China has the strategic advantage in naval competition in the South China Sea. This makes the South China Sea an area of great interest and worry to the US and Japan.

Photo by Flickr user Storm Crypt.