Category Archives: Maritime and territorial disputes

Feb 2017

China’s claims in the South China Sea: Implications for the West

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-dash lines indicate the area that China considers it has sovereignty over. It 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.

Competing claims in the South China Sea

Competing claims in the South China Sea

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. 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 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”.

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).

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.

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 deal with these issues. A wei qi contest is currently underway in the South China Sea. This is a game where Western rules do not apply.

An earlier and expanded version of this article was published in Global Challenges

Aug 2015

Dispute for islands in the South China Sea heats up

Global companies operating in South East Asia should pay attention to rising tensions between China and some of its neighbours over disputed islands. These dynamics, if not properly managed, could impact their business and shipping operations.

China is investing in a ‘modern maritime military force’ to protect the country’s ‘maritime rights and interests.’ The force will assist in asserting China’s claims over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. In May 2015, Beijing released its first ever White Paper on military strategy. The Paper outlines plans to build military forces with expeditionary capabilities, including naval and air platforms that can operate over long ranges.

Beijing aims to move from ‘near seas defence’ to a combination of ‘near seas defence’ and ‘far seas protection,’ which would involve at least a limited power projection capability. The force would allow China to show resolve at points of contention, such as disputed islands in the South China Sea. China has long said that it owns most of the reefs and islands in the South China Sea, buttressing pretensions to more vaguely defined rights to most of the Sea itself.

Source: World Review (

Source: World Review (

In recent years, Beijing has intensified construction on islands of military installations, some of which could be used for offensive purposes against other claimant states. These facilities include an airstrip, garrisons, air-defence batteries and radar and communications equipment. The new infrastructure boosts China’s ability to patrol surrounding waters and monitor the activities of other claimants.

Beijing seems intent on making enforceable the strongest possible claim to civil control of the disputed areas, leading eventually to formal legal control. This can be achieved by asserting physical control at specific points through the use of coastguard vessels to protect fishing rights and to ward off others. Moreover, China is deploying flotillas of trawlers and patrol vessels to protect the interests of its national oil company, which is drilling in disputed waters and now physically enlarging and developing atolls in the Paracel Islands.

At the end of June, Beijing announced that it had completed some of its land reclamation activities on the Spratly Islands, which are also claimed by other countries in the region. Before January 2014, the Chinese presence in the Spratlys consisted of a few concrete blockhouses perched on top of seven coral atolls. Today, these reef-based constructions have grown from five acres to an area covering 2,000 acres.

By asserting, in no uncertain terms, that it considers this area to be its exclusive domain, Beijing is heightening tensions with its neighbours and the United States. As a result, military spending in the region is increasing. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has found that major South East Asian naval powers have increased their defence spending by more than one and a half times since 2003, while China’s spending has grown more than fivefold in the same period. China’s South Sea Fleet has more major surface ships than all the South East Asian countries combined.

The waters of and the airspace above the South China Sea are filling up with military hardware as the dispute for islands heats up. Companies operating in the area should pay close scrutiny to these dynamics, including the potential impact of rising tensions for their business.

An enlarged version of this article was published in World Review