The recent arbitration ruling on the South China Sea will go down as a textbook example of the limitations of international justice. Even if the vast majority of countries swung behind the tribunal in The Hague, China just told them to get lost. The resumption of so-called freedom of navigation patrols by the American navy will not change this. They could even be strategically convenient to Beijing and create a misplaced sense of security among its neighbours. As America flexes its muscle, China will work unswervingly to gain effective control over the South China Sea and use it as a stronghold to challenge American primacy in the Western Pacific.
China has many reasons to expand its influence and military clout on the maritime margins of Asia. The main aim remains strategic. China reckons that it can only be secure if it gets itself a maritime sphere of influence. This calculation resembles the incipient naval strategy of the United States in the nineteenth century, when it first sought to keep rival powers out of its neighbourhood and, subsequently, to deter them in the two oceans bordering the continent. Genuine mistrust of the US as well as decades of propaganda make it impossible today for the Chinese leadership to back down without damaging its status as protector of the nation’s sovereignty and pride.
And why should China back down? Since the ruling, the response of the international community has been limited to statements. Beijing might actually have gained more confidence. Vietnam, another claimant, rounded up anti-Chinese demonstrators and vowed to strengthen its partnership with Beijing on the sidelines of an Asia-Europe Meeting. Indonesia eagerly embraced a Chinese proposal to develop a US$100 million investment zone. Singapore showed itself keen on more cooperation in banking and high-speed railway building. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) failed once more to issue a summit statement on the issue of the territorial claims.
Let the good times roll, the leaders must have thought. And so, the state news agency, Xinhua, announced that air patrols above the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal would be stepped up, thanks undoubtedly to the newly-built landing strip at Fiery Cross Reef.
The question remains whether these patrols herald the imposing of an air defence and identification zone over the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave stern warnings to countries like Japan to back off. The chief of the Chinese navy asserted that the resumption of American freedom of navigation patrols could end in disaster.
There is of course some grandstanding in all this, but it surely does confirm China’s growing might. The overflights of American planes and the patrols of navy ships might be disturbing, but they are not at all a threat to China’s long-term designs, as long as they do not lead to a confrontation in the short term. In these times of economic uncertainty, American muscle flexing helps the Chinese leadership rally popular support against an external adversary. But this is just a political expedient.
American flag waving also confirms its neighbours in the illusion that they can have it both ways: to get American protection and to support China’s rise by selling their raw materials or buying Chinese-made goods. This in turn gives China the opportunity to spend more on modern military equipment that alters the balance of power. The pace of China’s military modernisation is staggering. Since the turn of the century, it has commissioned 30 modern conventional submarines, 14 destroyers, 22 frigates, and about 26 corvettes, assets that are supported by satellites, radars, air defence systems, ballistic missiles and cyber capabilities.
The time of the “floating junkyard”, as many American colleagues once called the Chinese navy, lies definitely behind us. In the next decades, China wants to go beyond the South China Sea. It wants to become a resident power in the Western Pacific, so that it can deter long-range strikes from American nuclear attack submarines, its facilities in Japan and Guam, or its aircraft carriers. However much the US might mock that prospect, given the supremacy of its Seventh Fleet, China’s ultimate goal is not only to deny access to the South China Sea, but also to become so powerful in the Pacific Ocean that the presence of other navies is no longer to be feared.
China readies for what it calls an ocean-going century, economically, scientifically and militarily. This is indeed the privilege enjoyed today by the US as the world’s leading naval power. As America’s own rise in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries revealed, the tragedy is that such privilege cannot be enjoyed by two great powers at the same time. The rise of the one maritime power, however slow, inevitably portends a loss of influence for the other.
Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University Brussels.