Yes, China Wants Hegemony over the South China Sea


It’s about Beijing’s ambitions, not about concerns over America’s FONOPs.

People’s Republic of China (PRC) government-affiliated academic Hu Bo published an essay entitled “No One Lost the South China Sea (And No One Will)” in The National Interest on August 20. That article makes a relatively sophisticated defense of Beijing’s agenda in this maritime territorial dispute. Nevertheless, the case Hu makes is unbalanced and requires a critical response.

Hu says “there is no choice but to establish a common and inclusive security order” in the South China Sea. This is contrary to current PRC policy, which features a strong push to unilaterally consolidate claims that grant China exclusive privileges, not a movement toward a “common and inclusive security order.” Indeed, Beijing has long demanded that any negotiated settlement of the South China Sea dispute must take the form of separate bilateral talks between China and each of the other claimants (Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan; Chinese claims may also encompass Indonesia’s Natuna Islands). This is presumably to maximize Chinese leverage over invariably weaker partners. Beijing is also apparently working with ASEAN on a Code of Conduct, but this is much less likely a harbinger of Chinese concessions than another exercise in window-dressing, like the 2002 agreement between China and ASEAN.

Hu asserts that “no matter how far China develops, it is not likely to pursue so-called “`maritime hegemony’” because no country can “control” or “achieve predominance in the South China Sea.” Here, as well, Hu’s assessment is at odds with PRC policy. China’s agenda is clearly aimed at achieving some level of control over the areas of the South China encompassed by the nine-dashed line (i.e., about 90 percent of the South China Sea, plus all the “islands,” rocks, sandbars and reefs within that space).

Through both official statements and the actions of military and para-military units, Beijing has asserted two clear principles: (1) nationals from countries other than China are not allowed to take resources from the sea or seabed within this area without PRC assent; and (2) China has the right to close areas within this space to foreign commercial and military activities at will.

Examples of this include the annual Beijing-proclaimed fishing ban and the announced closure of part of the sea while the PLA Navy was conducting sea trials for the aircraft carrier Liaoning (leading to the USS Cowpens incident in 2013). Moreover, Chinese government vessels have repeatedly sought to enforce those principles through maritime hooliganism, including ramming or threatening to ram foreign vessels. The manifest PRC objectives of establishing ownership over resources and veto power over foreign activity in the area is a fair definition of “maritime hegemony.”

Hu argues “there is no problem with the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” Hu is correct if “freedom of navigation” refers only to foreign commercial shipping passing through the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy’s definition of “freedom of navigation,” however, includes the ability of U.S. military ships and aircraft to operate unimpeded in the areas defined as international sea and airspace by international law. The U.S. Navy assiduously abides by the guidelines of the Law of the Sea—for example, surveilling China from within China’s exclusive economic zone, which is allowed, but not from within China’s territorial waters, which is not permitted. Chinese ships sometimes surveil U.S. Navy activity near Hawaii, and the U.S. government makes no fuss