At a top regional security forum on Saturday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China’s recent militarisation efforts in the disputed South China Sea were intended to intimidate and coerce regional countries.
Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China’s actions stood in “stark contrast with the openness of [the US] strategy,” and warned of “much larger consequences” if China continued its current approach.
As an “initial response”, China’s navy has been disinvited by the US from the upcoming 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international naval exercise.
It is important to understand the context of the current tensions, and the strategic stakes for both China and the US.
In recent years, China has sought to bolster its control over the South China Sea, where a number of claimants have overlapping territorial claims with China, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.
China’s efforts have continued unabated, despite rising tensions and international protests. Just recently, China landed a long-range heavy bomber for the first time on an island in the disputed Paracels, and deployed anti-ship and anti-air missile systems to its outposts in the Spratly Islands.
China’s air force has also stepped up its drills and patrols in the skies over the South China Sea.
While China is not the only claimant militarising the disputed region, no one else comes remotely close to the ambition, scale and speed of China’s efforts.
The South China Sea has long been coveted by China (and others) due to its strategic importance for trade and military power, as well as its abundant resources. According to one estimate, US$3.4 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, representing 21 percent of the global total.
China’s goal in the South China Sea can be summarised with one word: control.
In order to achieve this, China is undertaking a coordinated, long-term effort to assert its dominance in the region, including the building of artificial islands, civil and military infrastructure, and the deployment of military ships and aircraft to the region.
“CHINA’S GOAL IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA CAN BE SUMMARISED WITH ONE WORD: CONTROL.”
While politicians of other countries such as the US, Philippines and Australia espouse fiery rhetoric to protest China’s actions, Beijing is focusing on actively transforming the physical and power geography of the South China Sea.
In fact, according to the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, China’s efforts have been so successful that it “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”.