For decades, security analysts have hinted that naval conflict between the U.S. and China was only a matter of time. Moreover, ESAI Energy has written for many years that as China’s energy dependence on the Persian Gulf grew relative to U.S. dependence, the historic asymmetry in naval power between the two countries would become increasingly untenable for the Chinese, and encourage a stronger Chinese naval presence near the Persian Gulf (as well as the South China Sea), and it has. This makes the trade tensions
between the U.S and China more worrisome, and perhaps harder to manage.
China is expanding its maritime power in two distinct areas. First it has built and now operationalized a blue water Navy, meaning one that can sail to locations around the world and operate in a way that will protect Chinese interests both in terms of the shipment of raw materials to China and its overseas markets. This is particularly true in and around the Persian Gulf with the now regular, decade-long deployment of a surface action group in the North Arabian Sea and Somali Basin. The second type of maritime power it has expanded rapidly is in the form of the creation of militarized islands and land features in the waters of the South China Sea, a critical maritime shipping route to and from Northeast Asia. The rapid growth of military power in this region could be seen as defensive – roughly 80% of China’s oil imports pass through it – but it could also be used to coerce countries who rely on those sea lines of communication as well as countries who claim islands and exclusive economic zones that reach out into that area.
China’s creation and militarization of many islands – built through dredging in and around reefs that are barely above high tide – in the South China Sea are part of an ongoing set of disputes with other countries in the region: the Philippines, Vietnam, the Republic of China (Taiwan), Brunei, and Malaysia. China’s claim is that the entire South China Sea, including its islands, are Chinese territorial waters. If accepted and enforced, such claims would give China exclusive rights to fishing and other natural resources (including oil and gas) in that sea. The Philippines attempted to have an international tribunal rule China’s claims illegal in an arbitration case. China refused to take part in the arbitration and soundly rejected the ruling which quashed Beijing’s historical claim to the entire sea based on a historical “nine-dash line.” The tribunal did not, however, rule on land sovereignty (meaning existing islands) nor did it delineate maritime boundaries. China’s expansion and solidification of military reach in the South China Sea now give it, combined with its maritime militia and coast guard forces, the ability to push out any claims, forces, or vessels (military or merchant/fishing) of other littoral states who continue to dispute Beijing’s claims. This has already occurred in limited situations, and with the new capabilities, it is likely to expand over time – creating de facto control relative to other local claimants.
Internationally, the expansion of military capabilities astride sea routes in the South China Sea gives China not only defensive protection against wartime incursions of adversary navies, but they also create coercive capabilities in situations short of war. The speed and scope with which China has created land and militarized the region has led to significant concern in Washington, Tokyo, and elsewhere. “In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Admiral Davidson — commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command – said. While war between the U.S. and China does not appear to be on the horizon – despite the escalating trade dispute – the chances for accident and miscalculation have been heightened by the increased amount of military interaction now likely. Both the United States, and recently Japan, continue to patrol the South China Sea with surface ships, submarines, and military aircraft – challenging China’s maritime claims emanating from both its historical declaration and the creation of these “islands.” China now has increased capabilities to respond, harass such challenges, and therefore increase chances for accidents that could escalate. Given the political and economic tensions between Washington and Beijing, this not stabilizing for global trade and shipping.