How China Sees the South China Sea
Image Credit: Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center

How China Sees the South China Sea


Last week a friend asked me to revisit a historical analogy broached in those thrilling days of yesteryear when I wrote for Flashpoints. Good idea. There is more to say about the comparison, which sheds light on why China plays well with others in the Indian Ocean but not the China seas.

The analogy is the doctrine of "no peace beyond the line" practiced in late Renaissance Europe. To recap: in a nifty bit of collective doublethink, European rulers struck up a compact whereby nations could remain at peace in Europe, avoiding the hardships of direct conflict, while assailing each other mercilessly beyond a mythical boundary separating Europe from the Americas. In practice this meant they raided each other's shipping and outposts in the greater Caribbean Sea and its Atlantic approaches.

It feels as though an inverse dynamic is at work in the Indo-Pacific theater. Naval powers cooperate westward of the line traced by the Malay Peninsula, Strait of Malacca, and Indonesian archipelago. Suspicions pockmarked by occasional confrontation predominate east of the South China Sea rim, a physical — rather than imaginary — line dividing over there from home ground.

A non-Renaissance European, Clausewitz, helps explain why seafaring powers can police the Gulf of Aden in harmony while feuding over the law of the sea in the East China Sea and South China Sea. It's because the mission is apolitical. Counterpiracy is the overriding priority for the nations that have dispatched vessels to the waters off Somalia. Few if any of them have cross-cutting interests or motives that might disrupt the enterprise. It's easy to work together when the partners bring little baggage to the venture.

Or think of it in terms of vector mechanics. Clausewitz's go-to formula holds that how much a government values its political goals should dictate the magnitude and duration of the effort it mounts to obtain those goals. In a coalition, each partner performs its own calculations. Because countries have different interests, inhabit different bits of territory, and see the world through different historical and cultural lenses, their value-of-the-object calculations tend to differ. The vectors diverge. Disparate priorities complicate efforts to align the arrows in more or less the same direction, achieving common purposes, strategy, and operations.

It's rare indeed that coalition partners have the same goals, with few ulterior motives interfering with coalition management. But that does seem to be the case in the western Indian Ocean. The strategic vectors point in the same direction, largely of their own accord. The only real difference is the degree of effort each partner puts forth. Quarrels over free-riding, however, are minimal in a voluntary, informal consortium like the counterpiracy task force. Ergo, peace — even cooperation — beyond the line.

You see where I'm going with this. The expedition to the Gulf of Aden is an easy case. It proves a trivial result, namely that rivals can collaborate for mutual gain when they have the same interests in an endeavor. Now plant yourself in East Asia and survey the strategic terrain within the perimeter separating the Indian from the Pacific Ocean. China views the South China Sea, to name one contested expanse, not as a commons but as offshore territory. Indeed, Beijing asserts "indisputable sovereignty" there.

Such pretensions grate on Southeast Asian states, while the United States hopes to rally coalitions and partnerships to oversee the commons. But if Beijing is serious about the near seas' constituting "blue national soil" — and our Chinese friends are nothing if not sincere — then outsiders policing these waters must look like invaders. How else would you regard foreign constables or armies roaming your soil — even for praiseworthy reasons — without so much as a by-your-leave?

To Chinese eyes, then, Southeast Asians' exclusive economic zones (EEZs) must resemble unlawful occupation of Chinese borderlands. And if there's an iron law of strategy, it's that protecting sovereign territory represents a political aim commanding the utmost importance. In Clausewitzian parlance, it demands maximum defensive effort for as long as it takes. Trying to co-opt ASEAN governments or scuttle U.S.-led constabulary enterprises makes sense if you reason from Chinese precepts.

The upshot: coalition partner beyond the line, coalition breaker this side of the line. There is a common denominator between the Asian and Renaissance European cases, then, namely turf. Home turf. Europeans agreed that different rules would govern their interactions at home and overseas. In so doing they spared themselves the ravages of cross-border invasion. This bespoke a fundamentally conservative outlook. China is trying to regain what it considers its historic maritime periphery. Consequently, it has assumed a more acquisitive, offensive posture.

Either way, securing one's home ground and environs is Job One. The character of undertakings in faraway theaters, by contrast, depends on the extent to which national interests coincide or clash in those theaters. Rivals might cooperate out of expediency, go at each other, or ignore each other. Bottom line, the counter-piracy campaign is an eminently worthwhile endeavor. It should continue. Whether it can be replicated in more fractious zones on the map — and whether it can improve overall relations among nations — is another question entirely.

September 12, 2013 at 02:51

Indeed. If we only got paid for our opinions, I'd have bought a new smartphone by now :P

September 12, 2013 at 02:49

Give it a few more years and we'll see what the situation is. China's economy is slowing down, and the US' is improving slowly.

September 11, 2013 at 18:43

if the west stops buying chinas goods then where will china get the money from to build more armies ,navy etc.

china is going thorugh a industrial revolution  because of overseas investments into china .

reason chinas labor charges are cheap!.


September 11, 2013 at 03:52

No, my opinions are exactly zero satoshi.


You must be thinking of my compatriots on the other side of the ocean.

mary pham
September 10, 2013 at 22:32

Realistically, Asean can't be the united social, economic and military forces to confront China: their institutional structures and geo-political mixes have been and are easily exploited by China while significant Chinese origined power bases lay waiting to disrupt any domestic political attempts to do so. However, given current Chinese provocations and subsequent oppositions elsewhere ( Japan, India…), only few members of Asean are needed to coordinate a effective counter-bully campaign: Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. These 4 nations constitute 2/3rd of Asean GDP's and population as well as strategic locations to choke off Chinese supplies, shipping and naval movement. Once convinced of their anti-China stand will only enhance, not hurt Asean growing influences, they will attract more active participation from Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, the US and several  western countries.

September 10, 2013 at 18:03

when push comes to shove, no-one will stand up agaist China, even when it is clear China's claims to the so called South China Sea are patently ridiculous. China holds the economic superpower and trade card. Not even US economy is imune if China shuts off trade.

Fu Shio
September 10, 2013 at 15:19

To western point of view this is pretty shallow, but if anyone has ever been immersed to Chinese culture, this is the norm. The only way the weak can protect themselves is to get stronger, or unite against a common adversary. Unless ASEAN countries can gain unity in this issue – and China is trying to disrupt that – the CCP will keep asserting their claim by force if necessary.

September 10, 2013 at 14:25

Thank you Whichwaydidhegogeorge, for your 50 cents' worth…

September 10, 2013 at 04:57

That's funny. To the entire rest of the world, some 6 billion of us, China looks like the invader and interloper in seas where they never had inhabitants or naval bases for their entire history.

I think a *MUCH* better and much more accurate title would be: "How the World sees China in the East Vietnamese and West Phillipine Seas."

September 10, 2013 at 03:44

From the article "why China plays well with others in the Indian Ocean but not the China seas."


Why? Because other claimants in the area don't have strong navies. Bully china only respects the strong and powerful. Perfect example: Russia is still in control of over 600 thousands sq. km of land which they slaughtered chinese and took it all in 1858. Russian Navy shot to death several chinese and blew up several chinese ships in 2012 but china and chinese would not dare to say anything, not even a word. Bully china is still whinning about Japan but would not dare to bully and attack to take the islands back as it did with Vietnam and Philippines.


How sad and pathetic to push around the small and weak yet continuing to kiss the butts of the strong and kowtow to them.

TV Monitor
September 10, 2013 at 03:10

How China sees South China Sea is irrelevant, there are international maritime laws in place that will be enforced.

September 10, 2013 at 01:55

"To Chinese eyes, then, Southeast Asians' exclusive economic zones (EEZs) must resemble unlawful occupation of Chinese borderlands. And if there's an iron law of strategy, it's that protecting sovereign territory represents a political aim commanding the utmost importance."

CDK, is this true?

September 9, 2013 at 23:01

The Law of the Sea applies. China is in no position to unilaterally say anything different. Old imperial lines of control don't apply. International law trumps Chinese history. The US should station a permanent naval force in the South China Sea to force the PRC to behave.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
September 9, 2013 at 20:25

"if Beijing is serious about the near seas' constituting "blue national soil" — and our Chinese friends are nothing if not sincere — then outsiders policing these waters must look like invaders."

Yes. And the next question of course, is where will this delusional & paranoid mindset lead? 

The answer is pretty clear to anyone who has been paying attention. 

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