The proprietary manner in which Beijing treats the South China Sea is based on strategic and economic considerations. The Chinese want to control this large waterway as a first line of defense, and enjoy exclusive access to minerals, oil and gas reserves, and fishing rights. This is in addition to the leverage it seeks over the immense shipping traffic that flows through to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Obviously none of those countries supports the Chinese ambitions. Recently, however, Beijing has sought to use a bit of American history as precedent for its claims and actions.
The thesis has been put forth by Chinese academics attending international security conferences that the PRC’s official attitude toward the South China Sea is really no different than America’s past perceptions of the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Apparently they are referring to the Monroe Doctrine and the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary. The former of course was aimed at ending European intervention in both North and South America, with particular attention to the large body of water separating the two continents. Teddy Roosevelt extended this policy, however, to allow the U.S. to intervene in countries south of its borders in order to protect its strategic interests.
The Chinese academics suggesting the relevance of this history do so with a straight face even though the precedent they cite is clearly a non sequitur in today’s post-colonial world. From the Chinese point of view, though, the strategic justification is just as strong for Beijing today as it was for President Theodore Roosevelt’s Washington in the beginning of the 20th century.
Recent Pentagon reports have emphasized China’s investment in increasing the size of its navy. This theme has been repeated in most defense publications along with warnings concerning China’s ambition to eventually — if not sooner — dominate the Western Pacific. This hyperbole has played right into the hands of the PLA’s political offensive that desires to inflate the Asian and American perception of Beijing’s naval growth.
The fact is that Beijing has not invested in a massive naval buildup appropriate at least to nearing equality with the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which has been the post-WW2 “protector” of that part of the world. The prowess of Communist China’s military might is always a prime subject of Chinese propaganda, but the reality is that PLAN (People’s Liberation Army’s Navy) is held back by a lack of money and talent. Naval design and engineering has played a subordinate role to ground and air force development while China’s space program has gobbled up the “best and the brightest” of the country’s scientific and technological brains.
The availability of skilled and experienced maritime workers has been limited, which has had an impact on quality control more than production numbers. At international conferences foreign analysts have noted they agree with their American counterparts that China has launched about 40 new submarines (attack and SSBN) in the last 20 years. They add, though, that it does not mean these boats are equipped with the advanced technology appropriate to modern undersea warfare.
According to reports emanating from Russian naval sources, there has been considerable debate/argument within Chinese naval commands over the priorities given to the creation of the new aircraft carrier from the old Soviet-era ship that was towed from the Black Sea. The emphasis placed on giving the PLAN one carrier relatively quickly has been a source of serious conflict within professional ranks. No one can afford to argue over the highly publicized and expensive Chinese space program.
Perhaps of even more importance is the development of a highly protected submarine repair and docking facility on Hainan capable of providing berths for 20 subs. It all sounds very impressive until one realizes that today’s missile capability is such that in wartime these pens present an interesting target rather than a safe harbor.
As large as the South China Sea is, it’s not the Pacific Ocean, and that’s where the vastly superior U.S. fleet holds sway. Nothing in the development plans of the Chinese navy indicates an ability to seriously challenge the American control of the blue water of the Pacific in the foreseeable future. The same can not be said for control of the South China Sea. The Chinese have what they think is an ace up their sleeve in that regard. China’s naval mine technology is quite advanced and a vast store of mines is available to blockade the principal channels of the waters off southeast China. The Chinese have also made public their increased number of coastal-based anti-ship missiles.
Beijing’s military aim is eventually to control the trade routes through the South China Sea as well as use that large body of water for forward defense purposes protecting the coastline of the PRC from Fuzhou to the Gulf of Tonkin. This is very old-fashioned thinking that envisions a sea borne invasion that will never occur. Still stuck in a mentality that justifies a massive land force to prevent attacks along its borders from India to Siberia, China pursues a strategy that now includes a defensive posture protecting their southeast maritime provinces.
All this would suggest a fanciful defense plan were it not based on the political need to justify the maintenance of a vastly over-indulged military. In the end, the PRC’s leadership depends on the PLA to maintain the political power of the Politburo. Turning to archaic American historical precedent may have an academic appeal, but that’s all.