Alessandro Uras, Ph.D. candidate in Southeast Asian Studies. Department of Social Sciences and Institutions, University of Cagliari, Italy.
The South China Sea dispute is one of the most controversial issues of our days both diplomatically and academically. The states involved directly, such as Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, and indirectly, Japan and United States of America, in that issue are some of the most powerful and rich in the world. Each one of these countries have their own strategic interests in the region, from territorial claims to safeguarding freedom of navigation and sea lines of communication (SLOC). In the book under review, Sigfrido Burgos Càceres, an expert on international development, political economy and foreign affairs, aims to underline the Chinese strategic interests in the South China Sea, explaining Beijing’s power projection and its implications on USA and Japan economic and security positions. The book focuses on power projection and resource security, connecting these main topics with economics, governance, national security, politics and society, and it takes a close look at how dynamics in these multidimensional domains affect the drafting of strategies and policy-making, and the influence they have on state actions. The volume is divided into three parts: Introduction, Country Case Studies and Conclusion.
The first part introduces China’s external and internal dynamics and influences, examines Chinese search for energy and resources and tries to look at Beijing’s oil security through the lenses of diplomacy and economics. For the Chinese government, the control and the possible exploitation of the South China Sea is a security imperative, a national priority for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in order to maintain grip on power. In the Introduction, Caceres tries to explain why the global search for energy and resources is so important for Chinese leaders. Control of the oil and gas brings power, which provides a complete sense of security. Security is a prerequisite to prosperity and stability, which are the main goals of CCP strategy. From this perspective, we should ask what are China plans to get what it wants. The author addresses this important question explaining the relation between China’s economic growth and international assertiveness. Foreign diplomats and government officials are concerned about the prospect of a country that is significantly increasing its military power. China’s dependence on foreign oil will just make it more concerned about the situation; consequently, the country will be more engaged and focused on the South China Sea routes used by its oil and gas tankers. The military build-up is also necessary for dealing the internal and external challenges that the country has to face. The claim on the South China Sea islets is not just a question of underlining the sacred unity of Chinese land, or a question of international strength. It is vital for keeping alive the Chinese growth, which will provide more money to invest and more wealth to the people, the two pillars of CCP control on the country. China’s oil security is tightly linked to economic and foreign policies, as well as military strategy. The country’s increasing dependence on foreign oil is perceived by the government as a weakness, a strategic vulnerability. Caceres clearly underlines how all these issues are a potential danger for Chinese ambitions and he states that “China’s economic, military and political actions and initiative are designed and geared to protect nationally critical interests” (pp.40). The South China Sea is clearly on the top of the leaders list.
The second part is composed by country case studies. Caceres picks four regional actors that are directly involved in China’s grand strategy. The first one is Japan, which has an ongoing dispute with the Chinese government for the Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. The Japanese priority is minimizing the risk of clash in both South China Sea and East China Sea and solving the dispute in a peaceful way, with patience and diplomacy. Shinzo Abe’s comeback as Prime Minister in December 2012 changed the Japanese posture, because Chinese military expansion and modernization were seen as serious threats and cause a new wave of destabilization in East Asia and the Pacific. The relationship between Beijing and Tokyo is getting worst, but it is hard to believe that their dispute could ever end up in a full-scale war. Caceres suggests that the Senkaku/ Diaoyu dispute could be a routine diplomatic posturing between two States that are redefining their positions under a new economic and political context. The core of the dispute is all about making concessions and consequently adjust their strategic position. The Philippines are the second case study and their relation with Beijing is highly affected by reciprocal claims of sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea. Disagreements and tensions between the two Countries increased in 2012, after the Mischief Reef naval standoff, and the following year, when the Philippine Government challenged China at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and asked for a final and binding resolution of the dispute. International actors such as European Union and United States just requested ASEAN to reinforce and strengthen the existing Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, causing the disappointment of the Philippine Government. The third case is about China/ USA relation, which maybe is the most complex and dangerous one. In this section, Caceres tries to understand the security dynamics in the South China Sea in relation to China and the USA and why the South China Sea matters. The key geostrategic relevance of the South China Sea hinges on its geographical position, it is considered a vital link for economic growth and regional prosperity. Washington has always declared a neutral stance on the issue and asked to resolve peacefully any kind of dispute. Some of the regional countries involved in the dispute have come to rely more and more on the USA for advice, protection and support. The continued presence of the American Navy is perceived primary by Southeast Asian countries as a substantial force that will react decisively if provoked. As long as the USA are able to keep China in check, regional neighbors are content to remain vigilant and count on American guidance. The South China Sea issue could evolve as pivotal feature in the region, which will guarantee the cohesion, the prosperity and the well-being of the countries. Washington is well aware that China could become the most powerful adversary they ever faced, despite China has always showed little interest in reaching global leadership and openly challenge American positions. The USA and China are the two most powerful countries in the World and their relation is going to shape the future regional environment. Although the possibility of a major military conflict in the South China Sea is low, the potential for clashes and contestations in the near future is high, especially considering the suspicions concerning Chinese rising power and the growing stakes. Washington increased its military presence in East Asia and the Pacific not only to contain China, but also to protect its interests and show its reliability to the Asian allies. The fourth and last case study is focused on Vietnam’s relation with China. After the end of the Vietnam War, China’s relation with Vietnam started to become increasingly complicated and vitriolic, resulting in a direct clash in 1979. The Spratly Island issue between the two countries exacerbated the situation, leading to the rapprochement between Hanoi and Washington in 2012. In this section is clearly stated that “Vietnam’s interest in the South China Sea may be divided into traditional national security interests and interests linked to the broader category of human security” (pp. 108). This argument assumes that Vietnam is strongly interested in protecting its population against the depletion of fisheries, floods, pollution, piracy and wars, and not only its territorial claims. By the end of 2012, China and Vietnam had exchanged verbal hostilities in order to demonstrate to each other their intention to remain steadfast on claims over the South China Sea. The two countries are determined to advance their claims also to gain control of resources. In the end, the interstate struggle for control the islands and its resources rely on the willingness of either country to abandon its ambitions and plans, which are tightly linked to national identity, cultural legacy, economic growth and international status. China and Vietnam will probably continue to clash in the South China Sea because neither wants to set the precedent of accepting debilitating terms or making advantageous concessions.
The third and last part covers a great number of issues on power projection and resource security. Considering power projection theories could be very useful in order to have a deeper understanding of the regional environment. The danger of a full-scale war is greatest when a rising and dissatisfied challenger threatens to overtake a declining hegemon. In applying this theory to the ongoing situation in the South China Sea, it is believed that China, when all factors are taken into consideration, is unlikely to instigate a confrontation with the USA, and that while military conflict over the South China Sea is possible, this is more likely to be due to China’s inability to prevent American involvement than its willingness to provoke the USA. Caceres gives also a brief summary of the different outcomes that should emerge from a containing or an engaging strategy towards Beijing. Containment supporters thinks that China will rise to become a truculent power and this will create considerable instability in Asia that could affect the American interest in the region. Washington answered by reinforcing partnerships in East and Southeast Asia, building alliances and strengthening their military presence. Engagement supporters, otherwise, warn that the adoption of pre-emptive and defensive policies fuels the risk of instilling anger, doubt, fear and suspicion. They call for increased collaboration and cooperation, more interconnected economic ties and a number of ententes (pp. 122). CCP leaders must seek counsel and perspective to conclude whether the USA and its allies are either containing or engaging, and this conclusion may give us some indication of what lies ahead.
Overall, the book provides very useful insights and a deep analysis on the South China Sea clash and the Chinese posture in the region. China’s Strategic Interest in the South China Sea was written mainly for academics and students that already know the issue, but it could be useful also for those interested in international development and resource security, thanks to the author’s experience in these specific fields.
Alessandro Uras (2015), Review of “China’s Strategic Interests in the South China Sea. Power and Resources”, by Sigfrido Burgos Càceres, East Asian Integration Studies. Vol 8, no. 9.