China’s history is lost in antiquity.
Prior to the 19th century, China’s rulers did not think of China in terms of being a modern nation state … it was, instead, the central kingdom, a civilization due respect, if not fealty, from all who approached it. This contrasted with the West where, beginning with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, western governments conducted trade and diplomacy based on rules governing actions between sovereign nations.
This difference in world views created a conflict based on perceptions when western navies confronted China in the 1800s.
China viewed itself as having a superior society where all other peoples were to recognize the Middle Kingdom as being superior in knowledge and culture. Neighbors were expected to recognize the blessings of acceding to the Middle Kingdom’s superiority. Suzerainty is the term that fits the situation before the arrival of western navies.
China’s view of the world worked well until the 1800s when Western powers with modern weapons intruded on the scene, disrupting the historic Middle Kingdom and sending it into political turmoil until recently.
Does modern-day Chinese leadership hold onto the classic view of China being everlasting, where the barbarians are to be assimilated by traditional methods of corruption?
Is China a civilization “pretending to be a modern nation state”?
Or do China’s leaders believe it is a modern nation state, conducting trade and diplomacy using the rules established by the West?
Since Deng Xiaoping, China has become an economic powerhouse: A member of the world trade organization, with favored nation status from the United Sates.
With economic development, China’s need for resources, such as oil and natural gas, have grown.
The Oil and Gas Journal reported, “In total, the South China Sea has about 11 billion bbl of oil and 190 tcf of gas rated as proved or probable reserves. These levels are similar to the amount of proved oil reserves in Mexico and about two-thirds of the proved gas reserves in Europe, not including Russia.”
China’s claim over the South China Sea appears to have originated in the modern era, as reported in a USNI proceedings article, and not in antiquity.
“In the 1930s, China’s Republican government formed the Land and Water Maps Inspection Committee. … The committee reported in 1935 that in the South China Sea, China’s southernmost territorial feature is the James Bank, which sits about 50 nautical miles off the coast of Borneo, and that China’s maritime boundary should therefore extend south to 4 degrees North latitude.”
However, except for the brilliant maritime missions by Zheng He to the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf and Africa, predating explorations by European nations, China has shown little historic interest in maritime affairs.
Regardless, China’s Ten Dash Line, specified in the 1930s, has delineated its claim on the South China Sea.
With oil and natural gas resources as a possible motive, China has asserted its claim over both the South and East China Seas. In addition, the three strategic straits (shown by arrows) between Sumatra and Malaysia, Sumatra and Java and at the East end of Java, restrict the flow of commerce between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.
Though not part of the current argument over the Spratlys, China views these passages as critical to China’s maritime interests.
This can be interpreted in different ways. One interpretation is that China is responsive to the concept of freedom of the seas, the American position. Alternatively, China could see the importance of these straits only from a military perspective.
Most recently the Spratly Islands, 600 miles from China’s coast, have become a cause for concern. The Spratly Islands are claimed by several countries, including China and the Philippines. Vietnam, Borneo and Malaysia also have various fishing and economic claims in the South China Sea.
With dredging, China has transformed a few rocks into an island with an airstrip. It appears to be reinforcing its claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea by establishing a physical presence where none existed before.
The United States has always believed in freedom of the seas, and China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea has created a situation ripe for a military confrontation.
The United States Navy recently flew a reconnaissance mission over the Spratly Islands to reinforce its position that the South China Sea is an international waterway.
America’s allies are watching how the United States addresses this threat that also involves their interests.
China has said the rim of islands, stretching from the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, north of Taiwan, southward, including the Philippines and Borneo, form a maritime defensive perimeter.
The defensive perimeters of islands defines China’s strategy of Anti-Access and Area Denial, which is to deny access to the South China Sea by the United States Navy.
Whether it is oil or territorial aggrandizement, China, by creating an airstrip on what was formerly a few rocks, has set the stage for confrontation.
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