China’s Strategic Interests in the South China Sea

June 24, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view of Sansha city on July 27, 2012. China has appointed military officers at a newly-established garrison in the South China Sea. (STR/AFP/GettyImages)

A nasty row between China and Vietnam over disputed energy rich islands in the South China Sea is drawing international attention.

But some analysts say China’s aggressive acts towards its communist neighbor are largely a tactic used by the Chinese regime, and it’s unlikely that China will start a war with Vietnam.

China and Vietnam have been in a heated spat following clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese boats within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone during the last month.

But in the middle of the deadlock, two Vietnamese navy ships participated in a joint naval patrol with the Chinese navy on June 19 and 20. After the drills, the Vietnamese ships were even invited to make a Zhanjiang port visit in China’s southern Guangdong Province, according to the Vietnamese People’s Army Newspaper.

Such seemingly contradictory acts by the Chinese regime have raised eyebrows, but they are part of the game China plays to gain control in the region, or stir up national sentiments at home, some China experts say.

Control of the Region

The South China Sea is of vital strategic interest to China, and also affects the strategic and economic security of many Asia-Pacific nations.

Surrounded by many countries, including China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Taiwan, the South China Sea is a crucial transit route for oil from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. Japan, South Korea, Australia, as well as China, all heavily rely on it.

“Competition in the region is very intense in this era of energy shortages. The Chinese regime, in particular, wants the energy resources of the Spratly Islands, whereas China’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil has also become very strong, growing by 50 percent in 2010,” Cao Changqing, a freelance journalist based in the U.S. told The Epoch Times.

But while the Chinese regime has the military strength to defeat Vietnam or the Philippines, it lacks the power to settle disputes over sovereignty in the region if it has to openly and directly confront the United States, according to Wen Zhao, a news commentator with New Tang Dynasty TV.

“China is not that strong, nor is it determined to do so,” Wen said.

While the internationalization of the South China Sea dispute is unavoidable, it is unlikely that it will be resolved by military intervention, Wen said.

“In the foreseeable future, the South China Sea dispute will continue in this current fashion with each party sticking to its own claim of sovereignty, but small frictions will continue to occur,” Wen said.

According to official reports, bilateral trade between China and Vietnam increased 42.3 percent in the first quarter of 2011. In addition, China and Vietnam share mutual interests, including communist ideology, making war between the two countries very unlikely, Wen said.

“Vietnam does not want things to go bad and simply does not want the Chinese Regime to go too far. The Chinese regime does not dare to start a war with Vietnam and probably wants to end the conflict soon,” he said.

The South China Sea is strategically important to China for two other reasons, Wen said. One is that its deep waters offer the Chinese navy a good training ground.

The other reason is that this is the only area where China can break through the “first island chain,” namely Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Borneo, and Thailand, that is perceived by China as an impediment. Since there are no strong countries in the South China Sea, it is relatively easier to break through the chain from this region, and that’s why the Chinese regime has a strategic interest in this region, Wen said.

Inciting Nationalism

Both Cao and Wen said the region is also an important place for the Chinese regime to incite feelings of nationalism at home and to divert people’s attention from domestic troubles.

“Whenever there is strong public discontent in the country, the regime starts trouble outside, to incite a frenzy of nationalism and shift people’s resentment,” Cao said.

“It can bully small countries like Vietnam in the south. In the East China Sea, there are mainly the Diaoyu Islands and Japan, and sensitivity is much higher. If the United States and Japan toughen up, the Chinese regime can’t do anything,” Wen said.

But Cao said this tactic can also backfire as it will make Vietnam and other countries in the region, such as the Philippines, lose trust in Beijing and ally themselves with the United States to resist the Chinese regime’s bullying.

Furthermore it will negatively affect Sino-U.S. relations, according to Cao. “The United States will not sit by and watch China’s expansion. To maintain stability in Asia, it will strengthen alliances with Asian countries and shift its strategic attention from Europe to Asia. And while on the surface this move seems to be to curb communist North Korea, the underlying motive is to stop China’s expansion,” Cao said.

In a latest development, Chinese vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai warned the U.S. in a public statement on June 22 not to get involved in the disputes in the South China Sea, saying, “The United States is not a claimant state to the dispute, so it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states.”

Cui warned the U.S. of consequences, including anti-American sentiment from the Chinese people, saying, “The Chinese public is following very closely whether the United States will adopt a just and objective position on matters like these.”