Going Global: Balancing Power in the South China Sea
Columns / August 28, 2015
Balancing Power in the South China Sea
Disputes over naval territory have been a consistent struggle in the South China Sea since the end of the Second World War. For several years, Japan and China have both claimed ownership over a set of islands between the north of Taiwan and the south of Okinawa. The Japanese call them Senkaku-shima while the Chinese call them Diaoyu.
Regardless of ideology or history, it’s not the physical islands themselves that are valuable, but the area that surrounds them. In the case of Senkaku/Diaoyu specifically, there’s an abundance of oil and plenty of viable fishing area.
“They have claimed a lot of smaller islands, some of them are maybe 20 by 20,” says Shinder Purewal, a professor of political science at KPU. “It’s not simply an island, it’s the resources surrounding them. It’s a really big deal to them.”
In international law, countries have rights up to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from its coast. This would mean that whoever owns the Senkaku Islands would control 430,084 square kilometres of fishing waters, and whatever else is underneath it, namely oil. The largest of the Senkaku Islands is only 4.3 square kilometres. Vancouver International Airport sits on at least 10 square kilometers of land.
Japan would be extremely interested in an expanse of oil, given that their country has very little in regards to natural resources, needing to import most of them. While China has a lot of resources compared to Japan, they have 1.3-billion people who need them.
At the same time, Japan is trying to build up its military. This move is especially interesting due to the fact that Japan isn’t even supposed to have a military. After WWII ended, the Americans occupied Japan and had a hand in crafting their constitution. Article 9 states that:
Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.
The way the Japanese have since worked around this rule was to have their own “self-defense force,” which has seen increasing use outside of Japan and their waters. For the most part, their military has been restricted to UN Peacekeeping and small deployments in Iraq.
Moves like these could later brew into a full blown security dilemma. However, Purewal likens it more as a balance of power issue.
“It’s more of a balance of power issue there. Smaller nations like the Philippines and Vietnam, they’ve fought wars with the Americans now and they see them as natural allies because the Americans are interested in checking Chinese power.”
Despite the Americans not ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they have disagreed with China in their territorial assertions. Note that the United States patrols global naval trade routes with their massive navy, and would prefer things stay the way they are.
“The Chinese are trying to reserve one thing they believe they need, what they call a Blue Water navy,” says Purewal. “They should be able to move anywhere to protect their sea lines. And their sea lines are almost becoming global—just like the Americans, they believe that these are their spheres of influence. The Chinese are thinking that if we are bringing oil from the Middle East, then their sea lines begin from the Strait of Hormuz. And therefore the Indian Ocean is a sphere of influence.”
China’s desire for a Blue Water navy can be seen in their recent purchase of a Russian aircraft carrier. For a military superpower, having an aircraft carrier is a big deal, as they can be used to project force anywhere in the world as mobile military bases.
“My conclusion is that the Chinese are not going to give up that easily,” says Purewal, who believes that the Chinese are viewing the current situation as a test. They have aspirations to becoming a true superpower that can project its force anywhere in the world. However, if they get checked in their own backyard, a mere 200 kilometres away from their coast, what hope do they have of being able to maneuver around the world?