The Maritime Dragon: Chinese Ambitions in the South China Sea

The notion and concept of sovereignty is a creation of the west, ironically through its wars – with the Treaty of Westphalia signed in 1648 that followed The Thirty Years War (1618- 1648) having recognized it as a new principal of international relations.[1] This concept would subsequently spread from Europe, becoming a cornerstone for international peace and security. The concept of sovereignty is basically having two dimensions of the external and internal – the external implying that the state is independent from any outside intervention whilst the internal implies that the supreme authority has complete power over its jurisdiction.

The concept of sovereignty is a new notion in Chinese foreign policy, with China only first encountering it in the 19th century when it was defeated by the Western powers. But since post-1949, it has been a key word in Chinese politics. The Chinese prefer to interpret sovereignty as an entitled right and relate sovereignty to territorial integrity.[2] Territorial integrity is therefore not under negotiation for China; seeing it as a national scared task to protect its territorial integration of areas such Taiwan, Tibet, and the South China Sea. The Chinese also see sovereignty as the right to autonomously handle domestic issues free from external interference, as China always argues that any external interference in a country’s domestic affairs is an encroachment on its sovereignty. Referring to the principle of non-interference, China usually decries foreign countries’ criticisms of its management of issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, and its human rights abuses as unacceptable interference in its national sovereignty. China takes the national right of territorial integrity, non-interference, independence, as expressed by sovereignty as an integral whole. 

The Chinese holds its sovereignty issue as the most important element in their foreign policy; with the “one China” policy countering Taiwan’s independence as always being the non-negotiable issue for developing any foreign relation. The Chinese notion of sovereignty has much contrast to the European view. The Chinese interpretation on what sovereignty really signifies could be labelled as fundamentalist, while the European conceptualization being a reformist one. The Chinese see sovereignty as absolute and thus take a comparatively absolutist view on the character of national sovereignty. By contrast, Europeans are relativist and thus regard sovereignty as relative. China is now more sovereigntist than Europe; with the West viewing sovereignty more as an inescapable responsibility to govern in a certain manner. The concept of “responsibility to protect” Europeans believe in is linked to sovereignty, as quoted by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s statement that the “sovereignty of states must no longer be used as a shield for gross violations of human rights”. This statement has been frequently quoted by Europe to back its redefining of sovereignty as a responsibility to protect.

The above criteria mentioned differentiates the Chinese view on sovereignty from the Western view; with the CCP using the concept of sovereignty, territorial integration, and national humiliation as the driving factors which is used by them to grow the factor of nationalism. Just like the concept of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – where socialism is used according to Chinese benefit – sovereignty too is much different from the actual notion of sovereignty; where the Chinese use the notion of sovereignty according to their own benefit and can be termed as “sovereignty according to Chinese benefit”.

China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea

China’s sovereignty claims in mostly all the South China Sea has brought the Asian giant in confrontation with other Southeast Asian nations, turning the region into one of the major flash points in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s claim over the South China Sea is based on the historical notion and the nine-dash line. China claims that the Spratly and Paracel islands have been part of Chinese territory since the 2nd century Han dynasty.[3] The Chinese also making further claims from a historical context by pointing out the voyages of Zheng He, which according to them solidifies their position and sovereignty over the South China Sea. Historically however, China was dominated by a land periphery strategy between the Han period to the Ching dynasty, during which China’s security threats came from the north, northwest and northeast that eventually led to the formation of the Great Wall. On the contrary, the maritime periphery in the east, southeast and south posed no strategic threat that gave no impetus for a strong naval force to be built. The maritime periphery would only gain importance after the European and Japanese invasions in the late 19th and 20th century.

China’s nine-dash line concept was first brought into light after WWII by the ROC government, which claimed that all territory taken by Japan was to be returned to China. The subsequent People’s Republic of China established in 1949 continued this claim. Even during the premiership of Mao, wider attention was given towards the land boundaries due to the PRC’s border disputes with mostly all its neighbours. The Korean War and the Sino-Indian war solidified this stance further.

But the situation started to change after the 1970s when China began to modernise and began to follow an open economic policy, making China’s ports and cost lines more important.[4] At the same time when oil and natural gas was discovered in the South China Sea, China’s claims and the maritime issue it was causing became more assertive. The South China Sea is therefore a core interest for the Chinese Government. However, in the 1980s and early 1990s, China’s military had obsolete equipment which was not enough in asserting China’s interests to press on for sovereignty claims.[5] Now that China’s military has greatly modernised, its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea have intensified even further. This however has brought China into confrontation with the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea). According to the UNCLOS, 12 nautical miles from a nation’s coast is its territorial waters, but 200 nautical miles from the coast is an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). In accordance with Article 57 of the UNCLOS, the EEZ shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baseline of the territorial sea[6]. The Convention gives the coastal states sovereign rights over natural resources and the control of resources related to activities in the zone, preserving it from the other states’ use of the freedom of navigation, over flights, and the laying of submarine cables and pipelines.[7]

It was on this basis that the Philippines had launched a case against the PRC on 2013 at the Court of Arbitration regarding the PRC’s rapid encroachment in the South China Sea. China’s assertiveness over the South China Sea intensified from 2009, with the global financial crisis of 2008 resulting in the relative decline of US power and enlarging a window of opportunity for Beijing.[8] In 2009, China visibly stepped up the expulsion, confiscation and detention of foreign vessels and, in 2010, conducted a series of naval exercises near these contested waters. In 2011, China stepped up maritime surveillance and cut off a Vietnamese ship’s seismic survey cables, which according to the UNCLOS is a clear violation of article 57. China also started dispatching more patrol ships within the nine-dash line, which China regarded as legitimate acts to defend its sovereignty interests.

China’s internal politics also have a great role to play in the assertive behaviour of the PRC, as many analysts believe that Chinese leaders are showing aggressiveness to demonstrate nationalism to the people – so that the latter won’t think their top leaders are weak. In 2016, the Chinese also scrambled fighter jets in response to a U.S. Navy spy ship sailing close to a disputed reef in the South China Sea, showing China’s deep interest in the region.[9] China also does not respect the judgement given by the Arbitration Court over the South China Sea dispute; claiming that the matter of the sovereign and legal status of the islands is inseparable.[10]

China’s artificial island constructions

The construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea is seen as changing the security architecture of the region whilst China militarises the region. China had started the construction of artificial islands on Subi Reef, Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef in the Spartly Islands. China has also constructed port facilities, military buildings and an airstrip on the islands, with the installation bolstering China’s foothold on the Spartly Islands 500 miles away from the Chinese mainland.[11]

The militarization of the region has been questioned by many nations, with the latest satellite images proving that missile shelters and radar and communications facilities are being built on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands. On Mischief Reef, a very large antennae array is being installed that presumably boosts Beijing’s ability to monitor the surroundings of the installation – which should be of concern to the Philippines due to its proximity to an area claimed by Manila. Beijing also started construction of an airstrip and harbour on the Woody Islands on the Paracels, proving that it is trying to militarize the entire South China Sea region and solidify its foothold and sovereignty on the entire region. These island constructions by China, despite international concerns, prove that Beijing considers sovereignty and territorial integration as a core national interest; one that is much different from the western notion of sovereignty.  

The Strategic and Geopolitical Importance

The strategic and geopolitical importance of the South China Sea has a great role to play in this recent dispute. It has one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, connecting the Indian Ocean with the Pacific, with a total of about $5 trillion worth of goods passing through it every year. Energy is one of the most important elements which passes through these sea lanes, as all the East Asian nations including the PRC, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan obtain their energy through these lanes. China’s artificial military island construction in the South China Sea further solidifies its sovereignty claim over the waters and brings a great security challenge to the entire region.

China overtook the US as the world’s largest oil importer in 2013, a position occupied by the latter for almost 40 years. Against such a background, ensuring energy supplies remains at the top of the Chinese foreign policy agenda, as it is important to maintain stable economic growth and domestic stability. As energy security is fully linked to China’s national economic security, it has become an integral part of China’s global strategy.[12] As sovereignty over the South China Sea involves China’s economic, energy, and national security and is a core interest, it is not difficult to see that China cannot afford to lose the ‘sovereignty claims battle’ over the South China Sea. First, China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea will completely resolve its ‘Malacca dilemma’, which has existed for many years. China’s sovereignty over the South China Sea enables the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to establish military bases over the Paracels and Spratlys as the strategic spots safeguarding its trade and energy routes through the Strait of Malacca. Apart from Yulin naval base located near the South China Sea, the PLA established a massive new naval base in Hainan Island in 2013 for its nuclear submarines and second aircraft carrier.

Sovereignty over the South China Sea would enable it to exercise great influence over the sea-route security of East Asia. This would have a direct impact on Japanese and South Korean sea route (trade and energy) security, as most of the oil imports of these two powerful Northeast Asian economies come from the Persian Gulf, passing through the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea (near the Spratlys)[13]. Since China has territorial disputes with Japan over the Diaoyudao (Senkaku) Islands, dominance over the South China Sea allows Beijing to have a strategic leverage over the Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry in East Asia, implying that it will greatly enhance Beijing’s strategic position over the East China Sea disputes as well as in its competition for regional leadership. From a Chinese perspective, the control of the South China Sea is a vital key to resolving the ‘Japan problem’, including the East China Sea disputes and the Sino-Japan strategic rivalry.

Freedom of Navigation Operations

Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea has a great security implication for the entire Indo-Pacific belt. With China’s recent militarization of the region through constructing artificial islands and military logistical equipment, it is trying to push its objective of obtaining full sovereignty over the region. China has built an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and any such move in the South China Sea will have a great effect on the traffic movement on the South China Sea. For example, the Chinese Coast Guard and PLAN had intercepted a normal single engine plane carrying a BBC journalist over Mischief Reef and ordered them to deviate as they were in a restricted airspace; clearly proving China’s assertive behaviour in the region.[14]

To challenge this assertive approach by China, the USA have started the Freedom of Navigation operation in the South China Sea. This operation is conducted to challenge the Chinese assertive approach in the region that there are regular air and naval operations to maintain the Freedom of Navigation in the region by various powers like the USA, Australia, and even India. The strategical importance of the region makes this operation an important step to check Chinese hegemonic behaviour and to make sure that the vital water ways and even airspace, which is considered by all as an international space, is free from China’s assertive approach. The US has conducted numerous naval operations in the South China Sea in recent times, with the U.S. Navy warship, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain, reportedly sailing within 12 miles of Mischief Reef, host to one of seven artificial islands built by China in the Spratly Islands Group in August.[15] These are clear challenges to China’s plan to justify the nine-dash line concept and turn the South China Sea into China’s offensive military operation base in the future, which itself is a big challenge for other US allies like South Korea and Japan in future. But this is seen by the Chinese as a clear violation of their sovereignty, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry issuing a statement outlining that the vessel had “trespassed” China’s territorial waters.[16] The Chinese therefore view the matter as a clear violation of their territorial integrity and sovereignty in the region, merely seeing it as an attempt by Washington to keep the South China Sea in turmoil for its own regional benefits.


China’s sovereignty claim over the South China Sea is growing more assertive, even under heavy international pressure with tensions not easing anytime sooner. The construction of artificial islands will further boost its claim in the region and increase the militarization of these islands with airstrips, missile bunkers and with ADIZs. In the future, this could turn the important waterway within the region into a major military flashpoint with serious consequences for both region and the world due to its strategic importance. With growing Chinese nationalism, it does not look likely that China will reduce its presence in the region, especially with its close link to Xi Jinping’s idea to turn China into a major super power by 2050. This will introduce many more challenges, with major powers like the USA, Japan, India and Australia coming closer together to challenge China’s hegemonic power approach. 

Featured image credit: USNI News


[1]Zhon qi Pan- Managing the conceptual gap on sovereignty in China–EU relations

[2] Zhonqi Pan- Managing the conceptual gap on sovereignty in China–EU relations

[3] Sujit Dutta- Securing the sea frontiers: China’s pursuit of sovereignty claim in South China Sea. (pg 274)

[4] Sujit Dutta- Securing the sea frontiers: China’s pursuit of sovereignty claim in South China Sea. (pg 276)

[5] Dean Cheng- how China views South China Sea: as a sovereign territory.



[8] Kuik Cheng Chwee- Explaining the Contradiction in China’s South China Sea policy.

[9] Reuters- November 2016        

[10] Understanding Chinese position on South China Sea dispute.

[11] DEREK WATKINS – The New York Times. 2015.

[12] Weifeng Zhou-   China’s growing assertiveness in South China Sea.

[13] Weifeng Zhou-   China’s growing assertiveness in South China Sea.

[14] China Navy to BBC: ‘Stay away from islands’ – BBC News. Youtube.

[15] Franz Stefan Gady- the Diplomat – South China Sea: US navy conducts FONO.

[16] Ankit Panda-China reacts angrily to recent FONO- the diplomat


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