Is China manipulating trade to assert its power in South China Sea?

By Venilla Rajaguru, Doctoral Candidate & Course Director for S & T in Global Development, York University, Canada; Board Director, Science for Peace

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South China Sea
South China Sea

The South China Sea or SCS conflict takes a different dimension when the role of China as a major foreign direct investment or FDI partner in the Asean is considered.

The region is growing too dependent on trade and economic relations with China, to the point that Beijing is clearly manipulating the SCS in its favour.

In this OP-ED, Venilla Rajaguru dissects the links between the Asean’s dependency on trade with China, the growing socio-technical dependency on Beijing, the South China Sea maritime boundary conflicts over China’s extensive claims and whether the Asean can afford to fight China on these claims.

In the view of the contributor, China can clearly afford to offend its ASEAN trading partners, with the knowledge that grouping’s economies are socio-economically and socio-technically entangled with Chinese funds, Chinese markets and Chinese technology – thus wired into seeking non-military solution to the conflict.

The views in this article are by Venilla Rajaguru, Doctoral Candidate & Course Director for S & T in Global Development, York University, Canada; Board Director, Science for Peace.

The article begins here:

The first question to ask: Is there any resolution in sight?

There is no resolution in sight, as yet. However, there is hope of a peaceful resolution, in course of time, as ASEAN and China have declared that they will work together on formalising a code of conduct over island constructions in the South China Sea and related maritime boundary issues.

The second question is: Can China afford to offend its trading partners? ASEAN Trading Partners & the U.S and Allied Regional Partners of the U.S?

i) China’s transnational relations with its immediate neighbours and Southeast Asia is not just dependent on trade.

Based on the developing economies of its Asian neighbours and Asian trading partners, it is well known that cost of outsourcing in China, and production costs in China are far cheaper than elsewhere.

To be more specific, ASEAN countries are increasingly getting dependent on trade with China; and China sees opportunities in countries like Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar to venture into national infrastructures development projects – like railways, gas and oil pipelines projects.

Arguably Chinese investment in transnational infrastructure projects and bilateral partnerships in developing another state enterprise and state infrastructure can be seen as the other side of the same coin of Chinese hegemonic power.

In this context of growing socio-technical dependency in China, the South China Sea maritime boundary conflicts over China’s extensive claims may be a touchy issue, but one that no dependent state economy can afford to aggressively fight with China.

My view, therefore, is that China can afford to offend its ASEAN trading partners, with the knowledge that ASEAN economies are socio-economically and socio-technically entangled with Chinese funds, Chinese markets and Chinese technology.

ii) The only challenging nation within ASEAN, not completely restrained by economic imperatives and Chinese trade/markets/investment is the Philippines.

It is widely known that the Philippines is supported predominantly by the U.S., its treaty partner in security, defence and trade.

Not that the Philippines is not trade-dependent with China; however, this trade relationship does not hinder or restrain public political conflicts between the Philippines and China, especially on the point of construction of two islands within Philippines maritime boundaries, and sand dredging over live coral reefs in Philippines waters.

Arguably, the political and legal battle over maritime rights of the Philippines with China is also tied to its strength of partnership with the U.S – the partnership with the U.S. flourishing since the time period of world war II.

For the U.S., naval bases in the waterways in and around the Philippines was critical during the Cold

War days, and is now, to maintain the American role of patrolling the China Sea region as Pacific Power.

There have been plenty of scholarly writing on this subject of American hegemony and on the topic of American fleets sailing through the South China Sea since Cold War days.

iii) Though the U.S. and the American-allied regional partners are also increasingly geared to growing their trade with China, their economic imperatives are quite distinct from their political goals to maintain and even enhance their regional power and dominance. History since Pax Britannica indicates that trade partnership does not necessarily mean an absence of political conflict or aggression in the line of defence or pre-emptive defence.

iv) Certainly, Chinese claims to almost the entire South China Sea by trying to officiate the 9-dash line territorial map, and through island construction is aimed at controlling not just maritime space and seabed resources but also the airspace above.

There have been various researchers in the past who have noted that China’s imperative to control the SCS waterways is also linked to countering American military activities in the region – these include surveillance and military exercises near Chinese coastal waters.

But the U.S asserts the age old principle of freedom of navigation, in addition to the right of innocent passage and transit of its naval vessels through the exclusive economic zones of various countries, including China’s.

And the U.S is not alone in asserting these rights.

All maritime states claim and assert these rights, including China.

This nationalistic expansive claim and island-building to assert national jurisdiction over the maritime area in the South China Sea by China is distinct yet interconnected to the state’s international trade imperatives.

Trade partnerships do not exclude political rivalry or military dominance.

Multilateral relations on the South China Sea claims and conflicts between regional and international trade partners is best viewed, recognized and acknowledged as China’s matrix of political and military dominance interwoven with economic incentives, trade and infrastructure development opportunities – a matrix of steadily increasing power, that China did not invent, as this sort of matrix has historically been developed by all leading global powers in the past and present.

The third question to ask is: What is China’s ultimate goal?

It is an oversimplification to ponder along the lines of one ultimate goal. If we do, then the ultimate goal is no difficult guess that China with its rising political economy wants to claim and be acknowledged as a global power.

But why power-building, and what’s the purpose of aspiring for global and regional hegemony? Is it just to displace American hegemony, and grown as a global leader, controlling mercantile and maritime passages, and indeed controlling the airspace above the maritime space (as witnessed in the East China Sea region in 2013)? Within the context of SCS disputes, it is important to view Chinese dominance and quest for expansive territorial claims as part of a larger national system.

China’s SCS claims or even the Chinese efforts to control the East China Sea cannot just be viewed as an isolated instance of power-building.

We need to probe further and question, as I have been arguing in the research circles, on what is the instrumentalism of the architected sea? i. e. What’s the purpose of reclaiming land and constructing artificial islands: are they military outposts, or defence infrastructural assemblage?

If so, they are part of a larger technical system, as I have argued in my research chapters of an upcoming book. Are these fortified and technologized maritime passages pointing towards the space and routes of navigational freedom of Chinese nuclear submarines?

And are they also indicative of an enhanced Chinese state control of marine and seabed resources in the spaces within the 9-dash line map, within which 7 of the Chinese built islands are located?

Again, these are technological assemblages indicative of not just national defence or maritime infrastructure – indeed it is a question about security infrastructure: the question here indeed is an important one, to decipher China’s ultimate goal.

The question is, what is the ultimate goal of the architected china sea region in the larger context of China’s 21 st century maritime silk roads and one road-one belt project, that aspires to connect the pacific with the Indian Ocean, and further to the inroads of the Persian gulf and Europe.

The ultimate goal of this large technical system of infrastructural assemblages, of which the SCS island constructions are but one part, seems then empire-building. SCS claims are but one part of China’s millennial empire-building strategy.

China claims historical rights over almost the entire part of the South China Sea.

The claims are based on the medieval settlement of Chinese travellers and fishermen in and around the South China Sea islands.

This cultural aspect of ‘use’ of the waterways and islands since medieval times is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan – not surprising, as, in the case of Vietnam, the state is China’s immediate neighbour sharing mutual concerns about their land borders and maritime boundaries. Competition and conflict between China and Vietnam over mining seabed resources started more than 2 decades ago.

The other claimant states, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia assert their 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zones, as accorded by the international treaty law of the Third United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III).

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