Beijing claims some 300 million square kilometers (or 80 percent) of the East and South China Sea and the Yellow Sea that separates the Korean Peninsula from China’s east coast.
Conventional analyses of China’s aggressive claims focus on rivalries among the coastal states over the underwater resources the China Sea is believed to contain. These disputes involve Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and Japan. Vietnam and China have twice come to blows—in 1974 and 1988—over South China Sea islets.
Proposals for settling the question have centered on setting aside the competing claims in favor of joint exploration and production sharing of maritime resources discovered.
But a respected Australian analyst of the Chinese armed forces suggests that China’s deepest motives are not economic but military. You Ji, an ethnic Chinese senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales (Sydney), says that China needs control of the China Sea to achieve defense in depth—to prevent its coastal heartland from being exposed to seaborne attack.
Professor You specializes in the study of China’s armed forces. He has noted in recent years the Chinese Navy’s growing regional power and global reach. He argues that if China is to become a first-rank power, it must build up its sea, as well as land, forces. And China needs control of the China Sea to enable the forces defending its 18,000-kilometer coastline to fall back to a succession of prepared positions without being overrun or outflanked.
If You’s analysis is correct, the China Sea crisis will be more intense, more protracted and further reaching than any quarrel over material resources.
The contest—diplomatic, military, technological—is really just beginning. And China is likely to maintain the initiative. It can turn the tensions in the contested islets on or off—particularly since civilian vessels plying disputed waters seem to act on occasion as proxies for the Chinese Navy.
If push comes to shove, the China Sea is also where the US is relatively most vulnerable to its much weaker adversary. Here American sea-lanes for reinforcement and supply are most stretched, while the Chinese Navy is closest to supporting coastal bases.
To prevent a catastrophe, Washington, D.C. and Beijing must reach a grand bargain that enables them both to live peacefully—and in mutual respect—with one another.