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