The Chinese objective in the South China Sea is rational if one steps back in time to consider historical precedents.
Ignoring the theatrical assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, an important cause of World War I was the German invasion of north-eastern France to control the coal and steel industry in this region. (International Encyclopaedia of the First World War, Pierre Chanceret)
Among causes for World War II was the German invasion of the coal and iron ore resources of Silesia and Sudetenland and the push towards the Caspian oil fields. Japan commenced war in the Pacific a little before these events in Europe by the invasion of Manchuria to control iron ore reserves in that region. Later Japan moved into south-east Asia to control tin, oil, coal and rubber resources.
China’s actions in the South China Sea are consistent with the above as this Power wishes to control potential oil and fish stocks. This policy reflects those of other aspiring Powers in the first half of the 20th Century. A principal finding of the 2012 Rio Resources Conference was “there is a coming desperate competition for resources.”
History books inform us, that during the 1930s, Europe ‘sleep walked’ its way to war. During this decade Nazi military build-up was clear but the Democratic West hoped, nay prayed, that the threat would disappear. So today, a comparable situation exists with China. Fast reverse to 1991 when Mount Pinatubu in the Philippines erupted. Among the devastation were the United States Clarke Air Force base and the Subic Bay Naval base. America withdrew its military might to Alaska and Hawaii thereby creating a military vacuum adjacent to the South China Sea. Within a few months, the Chinese Government proclaimed “The Law of Territorial Waters and their Contiguous Areas” which effectively ensured any fish and oil resources within the 9 Dash Line could be controlled by China. For 25 years, the Pacific Rim countries appeared to have ‘sleep walked’ their way to the present confrontation today.
Russia and China possess similar geopolitical threats. Russian policy is to maintain a buffer between itself and NATO by maintaining influence over Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. In a similar way, the Chinese construction of forward defences along the 9 Dash Line distant from its littoral is understandable. China’s reaction to the chorus of ‘Rule of Law’ is no surprise.
Despite China’s unfavourable reaction to the ruling of the International Court of Arbitration, it has a serious problem. The Chinese navy is no match for the United States navy as it is not yet an effective fighting force,. (Beijing’s Blue Print for the South China Sea, George Friedman, June 2016)
Again, peering through an historical rear window, documents show that once aspirations for Empire take root in a ruling elite, the growth become virtually unstoppable. The life cycle of an Empire is rise, domination and implosion or destruction by a virile aggressor. Empires require vassal states to provide cheap raw materials and food. By mid century, 35 years hence, Australia’s future international status, which incorporates the Chinese controlled port of Darwin, may be different from that of today.
Another driver to Chinese assertiveness is the 200 year memory of European intervention, including the introduction of opium, into Chinese affairs. Muscle flexing truly commenced in 1997 with the return of Hong Kong and Macau to China by former colonial powers.
A flash point for this regional issue could occur in the East China Sea over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkakus islands. As at June 30, 2016, in the previous three months, Japanese military aircraft ‘scrambled’ more than 100 times due to suspected Chinese incursions into disputed air space, also in mid June a Chinese frigate entered the contiguous sea zone. (Japan Today, 30 June, 2016) The significance of these events is Article V of the United States – Japan Security Treaty which requires the signatories to support one another in the case of a third party attack.
As a concluding comment, Beijing must now walk a tightrope by maintaining the expectation of the Chinese people and enforcing an exclusion zone over the South China Sea.