Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea: War on the Horizon?
Global Challenges
Issue no. 1 | February 2017
South China Sea | Article 2

A Sea at the Heart of Chinese National Interest

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Chinese territorial and maritime claims over large swaths of the South China Sea are based not only on economic and security considerations, but also on national identity making and the renewal of China’s past grandeur, which today is taking the form of President Xi Jinping’s vision of the “China dream” (Zhōngguó mèng). This term has become popular since 2013. It describes a set of personal and national ideals related to the rejuvenation of the country, including restoring the glory of the ancient times, when China presided over a Sino-centric order in East Asia.

This explains the fundamental Sino-Western division over the application of international law and legal agreements (such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea – UNCLOS) to sovereignty disputes. The latter are viewed by Chinese leaders and the public opinion alike as “domestic” issues and not something over which other claimant states – and even less so the international community – should have a say.

The Political Use of History

In 2000, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a document on “Evidence to Support China’s Sovereignty over Nansha (Spratly) Islands” where it was stated that “China was the first to discover, name, develop, conduct economic activities on and exercise jurisdiction of the Nansha Islands”. The document uses medieval and even ancient texts – going back as far as to the East Han Dynasty (AD 23–220) – to demonstrate that the Chinese people – i.e. the explorers, soldiers, traders, fishermen – made the South China Sea “an inalienable part of Chinese territory”.

This was reiterated in the “Position Paper of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration Initiated by the Republic of the Philippines” released on 7 December 2014. The document maintains that “Chinese activities in the South China Sea date back over 2,000 years ago”, with China being “the first country to discover, name, explore and exploit the resources of the South China Sea islands and the first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them”. To further back up this argument, the Chinese government claims that maps of the South China Sea islands were published throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, including in navigational charts drawn up by China’s thirteenth century admiral and explorer Zheng He.

Seen from this perspective, Chinese territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea are inextricably linked to China’s identity storyline.Chinese territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea are inextricably linked to China’s identity storyline.  In the December 2014 position paper, it is stated that “China believes that the nature and maritime entitlements of certain maritime features in the South China Sea cannot be considered in isolation from the issue of sovereignty”. In the last years there have been a number of semi-official declarations by Chinese policymakers and senior officials of the People’s Liberation Army which have asserted that the islands, shoals and waters in the South China Sea are now a “core national interest”, alongside Tibet and Taiwan. This is much more than a Chinese version of the United States’ nineteenth century’s Monroe Doctrine since it touches to the very heart of China’s national identity. For instance, in geography classes across the country, Chinese schoolchildren study maps of China’s territory including the entire South China Sea, where the nine-dash line is clearly marked out.

The so-called nine-, ten-, but also eleven-dash lines indicate the area that China considers it has sovereignty over. In 2009, the Chinese government circulated a nine-dash map through a set of notes verbales to the United Nations, taking inspiration from an eleven-dash line map published by the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China in 1947. This map, in turn, was seen to follow a map published by the Republic of China’s Land and Water Maps Inspection Committee in 1935. In these maps, the geographical extent of the area claimed by Beijing includes the islands, banks and shoals as well as the surrounding waters of the Paracels, the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank, and the Pratas – known in China as the Xisha, Nansha, Zongsha and Dongsha archipelagos respectively – all the way down to James Shoal – also known as Zengmu Ansha reef – as its southernmost tip, 1,800 miles away from mainland China.

In Chinese eyes, the hundreds of islands, islets, sandbanks, rocks, and shoals – also referred to as “maritime features” – throughout the South China Sea region constitute an indivisible part of China’s historical territory.In Chinese eyes, the hundreds of islands, islets, sandbanks, rocks, and shoals – also referred to as “maritime features” – throughout the South China Sea region constitute an indivisible part of China’s historical territory.  Therefore – and despite these maps’ apparent focus on maritime delineation – China’s claims emphasise its sovereignty over territorial “features” (i.e. islands) within the area demarcated by the dashed lines. It follows that the overlapping claims, and alternative interpretations, by other countries in the region – in particular Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – are not recognised by the Chinese authorities. The hardline approach taken by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finds support among Chinese public opinion, which has come to view Beijing’s construction of artificial islands as perfectly within its rights since it occurs within Chinese territory. The overwhelming view in China is that these are “our islands”.

Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has increased after President Xi Jinping’s accession to power in 2012. As the weakening economy has eroded some of the CCP’s legitimacy, a more muscular foreign policy is considered instrumental for maintaining the “mandate of heaven”Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has increased after President Xi Jinping’s accession to power in 2012. As the weakening economy has eroded some of the CCP’s legitimacy, a more muscular foreign policy is considered instrumental for maintaining the “mandate of heaven”   (i.e. the idea that there could be only one legitimate ruler of China at a time, and that this ruler had the blessing of the gods). It thus becomes essential for the CCP to show that it is able to cater to the Chinese people’s well-being and its growing aspirations, using force, if necessary, to ensure that China’s strategic economic interests and territorial ambitions in the South China Sea are safeguarded.

A Sea at the Heart of China’s Economic Development

China’s claims reach well within the 200-nautical-mile limit of several other nations’ exclusive economic zones. In the case of Malaysia and Brunei, for instance, the nine-dash line even reaches operating oil and gas fields, suggesting that China might one day think about seizing them for its own use. As the world’s largest importer of crude oil, China brings to its shores and borders around 7.5 million barrels a day, or 2.7 billion barrels a year. Around 70% of China’s oil imports, which are now over half of all consumption, come from the Persian Gulf and Africa and so reach the mainland through the South China Sea. Moreover, 82% of the country’s maritime imports follow the same route. For Beijing, the control of these sea lanes is thus a matter of national security, also because a rival power – i.e. the United States – or a coalition of surrounding countries could easily enforce a blockade of, for instance, the Malacca Straits, thus putting the Chinese economy to its knees, and hence shatter the legitimacy of the CCP. These fears have increased since the announcement of the US pivot to Asia in 2011 and the establishment of US-led Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs). To counter what it perceives as an “encirclement” by the United States and its Asian allies, Beijing has augmented its military capabilities considerably.

The pace of Beijing’s navy modernisation has been staggering. In the last years, it has commissioned more than 30 modern conventional submarines, 14 destroyers, 22 frigates and about 26 corvettes, assets that are supported by satellites, radars, air defence systems, ballistic missiles and cyber capabilities. Although China’s military development is changing the maritime balance of power, it is likely that the United States will remain the strongest naval power in Asia for the foreseeable future.Although China’s military development is changing the maritime balance of power, it is likely that the United States will remain the strongest naval power in Asia for the foreseeable future.  This has not, however, prevented China from being particularly aggressive in the South China Sea, building artificial islands, installing military facilities, drilling for oil and gas, and chasing off the boats of its Southeast Asian neighbours from waters UNCLOS – and the Arbitral Tribunal – says they can operate in. While in Western eyes these activities are a form of “territorial occupation”, for the Chinese authorities they are pieces of a long-term plan aimed at strategic positioning. They can be seen as an application in the South China Sea of the basic precepts of China’s strategy board game wei qi (also known in the West by its Japanese name, go).

Playing Wei Qi in the South China Sea

Wei qi is a game of surrounding pieces. It implies a concept of strategic encirclement through protracted “campaigns“ and “initiatives”. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage which requires a constant re-assessment of not only the pieces on the board, but also the reinforcements that the adversary is in a position to deploy. To be able to win, a wei qi player needs thus to move into “empty” spaces on the board – i.e. unoccupied islands and reefs in the South China Sea – to gradually mitigate the strategic potential of his opponent’s pieces – i.e. the United States and its Asian allies.

An enactment of the wei qi board game was in full display in summer 2016. In July, after more than three years of deliberation, the tribunal of the PCA in The Hague rendered the award in the arbitration between the Philippines and China, making it clear that China’s claims to extensive historic rights to maritime areas within the so-called “nine-dash line” is incompatible with UNCLOS and therefore illegitimate. The tribunal also underscored that none of the land features claimed by China qualify as an “island”, which would in turn warrant the claiming of an exclusive economic zone under UNCLOS.

China strongly condemned the verdict, declaring it null and void, and questioned the legality of the tribunal itself, preparing thus the ground for further escalation of tensions in the area. China’s refusal to recognise the tribunal’s ruling has prompted other claimants to reinforce their actions and the United States to intensify its Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to deter China from adopting even more confrontational policies in the future, such as declaring an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).

Following the last US-led FONOPs in the Spratly Islands, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a declaration stressing that the US Navy had “illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government“, adding that Beijing “has stressed on many occasions that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters. China’s sovereignty and relevant rights over the South China Sea have been formed over the long course of history.”

In conclusion, the West should not put too many hopes on international law, including UNCLOS. Instead, it should learn more about Chinese strategic thinking so as to be able to better confront Beijing. A wei qi contest is currently underway in the South China Sea. This is a game where Western rules do not apply.

By Vis. Prof. Nicola Casarini,
Department of International History,
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Header image caption: Protesters hold anti-China placards and shout slogans during a rally in front of the building housing Chinese consular offices in Manila on 2 April  2014, amidst the Philippines at the weekend asking a UN tribunal to declare Beijing's claims over most of the strategically significant South China Sea illegal.

Learn more on China’s concept of strategic warfare (video in French)

South China Sea: Elementary Data


East Asia


3.5 million km²

Riparian countries

Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam.


Petroleum, natural gas and fisheries products.

Major route of world maritime trade

Each year, USD 5.3 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea; US trade accounts for USD 1.2 trillion of this total.

Main islands

The South China Sea contains over 250 small islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars, most of which have no indigenous people, many of which are naturally under water at high tide, and some of which are permanently submerged.

Source: by Galvin and whybe.ch.

The Disputed Islands

The Spratly Islands

The Spratly Islands are a disputed group of 14 islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs, sometimes grouped in submerged old atolls. The archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Vietnam. The islands have no indigenous inhabitants, but offer rich fishing grounds and may contain significant oil and natural gas reserves. Some of the islands have civilian settlements, but of the approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs and shoals that are occupied, all contain structures that are occupied by military forces from Malaysia, Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Additionally, Brunei has claimed an exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The Paracel Islands

The Paracel Islands are a group of islands, reefs, banks and other maritime features. They are controlled (and occupied) by China, and also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. The archipelago is surrounded by productive fishing grounds and a seabed with potential, but as yet unexplored, oil and gas reserves.

Scarborough Shoal

Scarborough Shoal is a disputed territory claimed by China, Taiwan and the Philippines. Since the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, access to the shoal has been restricted by China. Scarborough Shoal forms a triangle-shaped chain of reefs and rocks with a perimeter of 46 km. It covers an area, including an inner lagoon, of 150 km2. The shoal’s highest point, South Rock, measures 1.8 m above water during high tide.

The Pratas Islands

The Pratas Islands are an atoll in the north of the South China Sea consisting of three islets about 340 km southeast of Hong Kong. Excluding their associated EEZ and territorial waters, the islets comprise about 240 ha, including 64 ha of lagoon area. China claims the islands, but Taiwan controls them and has declared them a national park. The main island of the group, Pratas Island, is the largest of the South China Sea islands.

Macclesfield Bank

Macclesfield Bank is an elongated sunken atoll of underwater reefs and shoals. It lies east of the Paracel Islands, southwest of the Pratas Islands and north of the Spratly Islands. Its length exceeds 130 km southwest-northeast, with a maximal width of more than 70 km. With an ocean area of 6,448 km2 within the outer rim of the reef, although completely submerged without any emergent cays or islets, it is one of the largest atolls of the world. Macclesfield Bank is claimed, in whole or in part, by China and Taiwan.

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