To understand the tensions in the South China Sea, one needs to see the broader geopolitical struggle taking place beyond simply access to the rich fishing grounds and energy reserves. The evolving Sino-American tensions also have a significant impact on regional and global stability.
China’s aggressive reclamation and militarisation of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in 2014 should have immediately made clear that Beijing’s objectives were not just about fish, gas and oil, for three reasons.
First, it is true that access to resources is part of the competing claims in the South China Sea. According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, the South China Sea accounted for 12 per cent of the fish caught globally in 2015. More than 50 per cent of fishing vessels in the world are believed to operate in the sea.
Second, China’s aggressive claims over the South China Sea would allow it to virtually seal off the body of water by interdicting strategic resources coming through the Malacca Strait. Chinese sovereignty over the sea would allow Beijing to exercise coercive diplomacy by controlling strategic resource flows with every country in the region.Third, the most important issue relating to China’s resolve over the South China Sea is that it offers a glimpse into Beijing’s objective of seizing Taiwan and using it as a platform to expel Western influences from the region.
With military assets already in place in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea would allow its military to establish tactical and operational control as well as unopposed freedom in its approaches to Taiwan.
Additionally, it would enable China to address some unfinished business with Japan from its colonial era. As far back as 1951, the US Central Intelligence Agency concluded in a now-declassified report that Taiwan was “the last stronghold of the Nationalist regime” and that the Chinese were resolute in “capturing Taiwan in order to complete the conquest of Chinese territory”.
Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and military professor, is a Taiwan fellow of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China and a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University. Joey Wang is a defence analyst in the United States. The views expressed in this analysis are the authors’ own