China's ultimate goal is to gain control of the region. The campaign to achieve this goal does not rely on battles involving powerful units, but on creeping expansion.
By Alexander Vuving
By Alexander Vuving
What is the core of Chinese strategy in the South China Sea dispute?
The Western eye is particularly ill trained to see through Beijing’s strategic moves. It tends to view the game nations play in terms of chess, but as keen observers of Chinese strategy such as Henry Kissinger and David Lai have noted, China plays weiqiin much of its foreign relations.
The oldest and most prominent board game in China, weiqi is, as its very name tells us, a game of encirclement. By contrast, chess is a game of checkmate. In chess, the game pieces, such as kings, queens, or pawns, vary vastly in their inherent value and power, which are determined by their definitional characters.
In weiqi, there are no kings, queens, or pawns, only identical stones that derive their powers from where they are located in the larger configuration of the pieces. If chess is about the accumulation and attrition of physical power, weiqi is about the seizure and maneuvering of strategic positions.
Observers using the chess lens will find China’s moves in the South China Sea dispute largely trivial. All the pawns are pushed forward, but there is little movement of the other, more powerful, figures. Perhaps the most powerful figure on the board is an underground base for nuclear submarines at Yulin on the southern coast of Hainan Island. However, this base is not located in the disputed areas. The main forces involved in the dispute are rarely the military, but mostly fishing boats and lightly armed government vessels.
Chinese fishing boats are the vanguard of Chinese aggressions
And the central objects of the contest are tiny, barren, oftentimes submerged, rocks.
Apparently looking at this game from a chess-like perspective, a very senior diplomat said, “great powers don’t go to war over rocks,” and a leading analyst concluded, “these tensions between a rising power and its neighbors are natural and constitute no major danger to the global balance of power, nor even to the normal functioning of the international system.” But in the eyes of the weiqi player, what China has done in the South China Sea is a classic example of how to play the game masterly. The ultimate goal is to gain control of the region. The campaign to achieve this goal does not rely on battles involving powerful units as in chess, but on creeping expansion.
It is a protracted undertaking that is played out in decades.
The underlying logic is to gradually shift the propensity of things in favor of Chinese dominance by unobtrusively maneuvering the strategic configuration of the region.
This strategy requires a number of imperatives, each of which is built on top of another.
The first imperative is to avoid military battles as much as possible; clashes can be initiated only to exploit an existing favorable situation.
The second imperative is to control the most strategic positions in the sea; if not already in possession, these positions must be seized stealthily if possible and in a limited conflict if necessary. The third imperative is to develop these positions into strong points of control, robust hubs of logistics, and effective bases of power projection.
The six decades of the PRC’s expansion in the South China Sea since the 1950s have neatly followed these imperatives.
While China was ready to engage in military confrontation, it usually avoided using large armed battles to enlarge its sphere of control. Of the numerous attempts by Beijing to snatch new possessions during these six decades, only two involved armed military clashes.
The first of the two took place in January 1974 against South Vietnam and concluded with China seizing the western half of the Paracel Islands, the Crescent Group, from the former.
The second was a far smaller—but no less bloody—skirmish against unified Vietnam at Johnson South Reef in April 1988.
What is remarkable about these two confrontations is that they both were fought at a time when a power vacuum was swelling in the region, with the United States withdrawing at the time of the first, and the Soviet Union withdrawing at that of the second. In both events, China also enjoyed the acquiescence of the United States, the most powerful actor in the larger Asia-Pacific region. As a result, the military conflicts caused little diplomatic repercussions.
The second imperative is well reflected in Beijing’s choice of places to occupy in the disputed areas. When China competed with Vietnam for foothold in the Spratly Islands during 1988, it traded quantity for quality. It took six reefs as opposed to eleven by Hanoi. But five of the six are among the most strategic features in the archipelago. China’s first choice in the Spratly Islands was Fiery Cross Reef, one of the best in the archipelago in terms of a combination of location and the potential for land reclamation.
Fiery Cross Reef (Đá Chữ Thập) strategic location
The atoll occupies an ideal spot at the western gateway into the Spratly Islands and is one of the few Spratly islands that are most exposed to the main transoceanic shipping routes passing through the South China Sea.
Its location not too far from but not too close to the other island groups reduces its vulnerability and enlarges its sphere of influence.
Adding to these advantages, Fiery Cross Reef occupies an area of 110 square kilometers, one of the largest in the Spratly Islands.
Four of the remaining five (Subi Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, and Cuarteron Reef) lie at the edge of four different island groups, from where they can control a large maritime area and the key waterways into the islands.
Mischief Reef, which China surreptitiously took from the Philippines in 1995
The two land features that China later added to its possessions also boast immense strategic values. Mischief Reef, which China surreptitiously took from the Philippines in 1995, lies at the center of the eastern wing of the Spratly Islands and close to the water highways that run along the eastern South China Sea.
Scarborough Shoal, which has been under de facto Chinese control since 2012, presides over the northeastern quadrant of the South China Sea and is an ideal outpost to watch the major shipping routes through the region.
With its control of the Paracel Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and several strategically located lands in the Spratly archipelago, China is far more advantaged than any other countries to command the South China Sea.
For example, Woody Islands, the largest one in the Paracels, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Scarborough Shoal form a four-point constellation from which, with a radius of only 250 nautical miles, the entire main body of the South China Sea can be kept under watch.
This means that all that takes for China to become the master of the South China Sea is to develop these assets into robust platforms, and to dispatch a myriad of vessels, both military and non-military, both above and under the water, and aircrafts, both manned and unmanned, to the area, vessels and aircrafts that can rely on logistic support from the said platforms.
This is precisely what Beijing is doing.
Woody Island (Đảo Phú Lâm)
An uninhabited sandbank 60 years ago, Woody Island now has roughly 1,000 residents, military and civilian alike.
Its dual-use facilities include a 2,700-meter airport with a runway and a parallel taxiway, which is capable of handling eight or more fourth-generation aircrafts such as SU-30MKK fighters and JH-7 bombers, and a 1,000-meter long deep-water port, which can accommodate vessels of 5,000 tons.
Down south in the Spratly Islands, starting from 2013, China has also been conducting massive construction projects to turn the rocks it occupies into islands. While the media tends to pay more attention to Johnson South Reef, the most consequential land reclamation is on Fiery Cross Reef. From a naturally submerged atoll, Fiery Cross Reef is now poised to become the largest island in the Spratlys.
Fiery Cross Reef (Đá Chữ Thập) land reclamation
After the current land reclamation, with an expected land area of 2 square kilometers, it will be four times as large as the naturally largest island in the archipelago, the Itu Aba, which is held by Taiwan. This expanded area will enable Fiery Cross Reef to host a 2,500-meter airfield, a 5,000-ton seaport, radar stations, several medium- to long-range surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, and other storage and service infrastructure that are capable of supporting hundreds of fishing boats, patrol vessels, warships, and combat aircrafts.
With its enlarged and strategically located islands, China has bigger potential than any other powers to gain air and naval superiority in the South China Sea.
Although Beijing still has a long way to go, it is not unimaginable to see in the next two decades a South China Sea dotted with powerful Chinese staging bases that stretch from the Paracel Islands in the northwest to Mischief Reef in the southeast, and from Scarborough Shoal in the northeast to Fiery Cross Reef in the southwest.
If the logic of weiqi holds true, and if China’s rivals have no effective counter-measures, Beijing is destined to become the new lord of the South China Sea, and as a consequence, the new hegemon in Asia.