Submarine sanctuary: Why China is so determined to establish dominance over the South China Sea

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President Barack Obama’s final address to the UN General Assembly featured a pointed swipe at Beijing’s aggressive moves to militarise “a few rocks and reefs” in the South China Sea. “A peaceful resolution of disputes offered by law will mean far greater stability,” he said. Indeed, installing airstrips and missiles on reclaimed land would represent a rather feeble effort to claim sovereignty – if that was actually China’s core objective. In reality, however, Chinese leaders have a much broader strategic objective, one which Obama cannot publicly talk about. Establishing dominance of the semi-closed South China Sea is but the first essential step in achieving China’s blue water ambitions, which Washington is unlikely to support.
By declaring the South China Sea as a “core interest” alongside Taiwan and Tibet – precluding the possibility of compromise or negotiation – Beijing is underlining the strategic value it attaches to the waters. On the surface, this deep commitment seems odd because, other than claiming ambiguously defined historic sovereign rights over a vast body of water (which was rejected by an international court) containing oil and fishing resources, China has not articulated what it seeks in the shallow waters of South China Sea.
Some of China’s interests in the waters are obvious: China has been drilling for oil and gas in the waters of South China Sea, it has sought to involve foreign oil companies by giving concessions and has diplomatically and physically obstructed other claimants like Vietnam from exploring. China has unilaterally banned fishing in the waters by other coastal nations at certain times of the year and has recently asked fishermen from other countries to seek permission before engaging in fishing. China has vastly expanded its coastguard fleet and armed it with powerful weapons, encouraging its fishing fleet to go out aggressively to neighbours’ exclusive economic zones.

Submarine sanctuary: Why China is so determined to establish dominance over the South China Sea

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