Trade, War, and the South China Sea


When crossing the expanse of the Pearl River Delta, from Macau to Hong Kong, at one point you lose sight of the mainland; before you is nothing but the sea. On this day in August, during typhoon season, a veil of rain moves swiftly across the bay falsely suggesting a void, where in fact rests the most densely urbanized region in Asia – the industrial machine driving China’s rise, one of the globe’s great entrepôts. Large container ships, modern day camels, pass by. From the starboard of the high-speed ferry, somewhere in the distance, lies a series of contested islands, islets, and reefs – guardians of the sea lanes connecting the world beyond.

Access to and control of the Pearl River Delta has helped define the history of geopolitics in the modern era. When Western powers first circumnavigated Africa and penetrated the East, they came here by sea. And more than by God or glory, the resulting struggle for world supremacy – the globalization of human competition – was defined by trade. As Walter Raleigh (the dreaded pirate or honored knight, depending on your viewpoint) once noted: “Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world; and consequently the world itself.”

Thus, it is no surprise that in these waters we can see more clearly the undercurrent linking the South China Sea dispute and ongoing U.S.-China trade war.

John Donne offered that: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” While a reflection on the human condition, Donne’s observation extends to Beijing’s dilemma of contested borderlands and strategic encirclement by sea. For modern China, the maritime features and the very water of the South China Sea must, by necessity and self-preservation, be considered a piece of the territorial state, part of a main continental empire.

By Westphalian standards, China’s “Nine-Dash Line” is a revolutionary approach to sovereign territory. The controversial claim encompasses nearly the entirety of the South China Sea and increases China’s geographic size by nearly 50 percent. The Nine-Dash Line is recent history, dating back to a 1948 map from pre-Communist China, and formally revived by the Peoples’ Republic of China in 2009 to rebut a joint Malaysian-Vietnamese application to extend their continental shelves under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The foundation for China’s sovereignty assertion, however, is not contemporary international law or even historic control over the South China Sea. In 2016, the arbitral tribunal, convened under Annex VII of UNCLOS, concluded there was no legal basis for China to assert historic rights to the sea areas falling within the Nine-Dash Line. After a lengthy investigative process, the tribunal also found there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources. Instead, the tribunal found that for much of history China’s navigation and trade in the South China Sea had simply been an exercise of existing high seas freedoms under international law. Moreover, because none of the Chinese-claimed features reviewed by the tribunal – the Spratly Island reefs and Scarborough Shoal – were technically “islands” under UNCLOS, they did not give rise to sovereignty claims or maritime entitlements, like economic exclusive zones.

Instead, the Nine-Dash Line finds its origin in China’s expanding national interest in securing its own periphery and access to vital trade routes. Like rising imperial powers before it, China faces the challenge of aligning its frontiers with its growing ambition and increasing appetite for resources and markets.