In the pre-industrial era, China was most vulnerable militarily to its north and west, where it faced the time’s most agile and penetrating forces from Inner Asian nomads. Their mounted archers would dash in, break through, and conquer the entire Chinese heartland. The threat they posed dwarfed that of the seafarers coming from the east and the south, who could at most raid the cities and villages along the Chinese coast. But since the 19th century, the military Achilles’ heel of China has shifted to its seaside. The mounted archers of today are aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines armed with supersonic and stealth aircrafts, drones, and cruise missiles. Mindful of the modern conditions, Chinese analysts have characterized their country as a “composite land-sea power” or a “sea-land amphibious power.” In the view of China’s strategic planners, control of the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea has become critical to China’s defense and security.
These seas have also acquired vital importance for China on the economic front. Pre-industrial China was virtually a self-sustained world and didn’t depend on foreign trade to flourish. Not so today. The rise of China in recent decades is owed much to the country’s economic integration with the world. Since the launch of “reform and opening” in 1979, China’s foreign trade dependency, expressed by the foreign trade share of gross domestic product, has surged from around 10 percent to around 70 percent. Adding to this general reliance, since 1998, China has been a net importer of energy. The World Bank reported that China’s net energy imports reached 7.6 percent of its total energy use in 2009. These statistics indicate that China’s economy would practically collapse if trade with the outside world were cut off. What makes the maritime domain even more vital to China is the fact that most of its foreign trade and energy imports are shipped through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait.
Not only China is dependent on the sea lanes of communication that run through these waters. In fact, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait are the lifeline of Asia. Every year, more than half of the region’s commodity trade and roughly 80 percent of the oil and gas imports of China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – the largest economies in the region – pass through these waters. The economic and military magnitude of these seas guarantees that no country in modern Asia can assume regional primacy without first gaining naval supremacy in the West Pacific.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In the past, China generally let others dominate the maritime zones off its coasts either because it was too weak to challenge the sea powers or because these areas were not vital to China militarily and economically and the powers that ruled them actively sought the status of tributaries and vassals to the Middle Kingdom. None of these conditions would be the reality of today and tomorrow. China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy in less than two decades. Its military expenditures are growing even faster than its economy. The seas surrounding China’s coasts have become critical to the country’s growth and defense. And the dominant power in maritime Asia, the United States, is unlikely to accept a subordinate status in a Chinese-led regional order.
Thanks to globalization and new weapons technologies, sea and land are now part of a single strategic terrain in Asia. Naval supremacy has become the sine qua non of regional preeminence. The maritime domain, including large swathes of the Indo-Pacific oceanic theater, might well be the center stage of the geopolitical competition between China and India. The United States can no longer assume that its nautical dominance will remain undisturbed indefinitely.
Alexander L. Vuving is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Asia-Pacific Center, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.