For the last decade, the South China Sea (SCS) has been a melting pot of mounting tensions, and into this seemingly unending saga, more firewood continues to be added. As China continues its rise, a supposed “peaceful” expansion – that has ignored the conflicting claims over the occupied islands – has been militarised.
The deployment of long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on the Spratly Islands and the recent landing of long-range bombed aircrafts on disputed islands, are the latest in a long list of “destabilising” (as described by Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne) moves by China. In blatant disregard of ongoing negotiations with those countries over a code of conduct for the region, China’s actions, viewed as hegemonic, continue to flame the fears of a future security conflict with USA, the ruling hegemon. Should this conflict arise, Australia as an ally of the USA will have to participate.
Hence, China’s latest actions continue to feed a miasma of fear amongst Australian defence officials. News that a major port off the coast of Vanuatu was financed by Chinese money drove Australians into an uproar, due to concerns that this would be transformed into the closest foreign military base to Australian soil despite no evidence suggesting such intentions.
Understandably, Australians are worried. Not since Japan has such a country dominated the seas of the Asia Pacific. Does China have similar hegemonic intentions as Imperial Japan? Are they laying the groundwork for future domination of the region? What other possible justification could there be for such actions that come at the cost of international condemnation?
Since Xi Jin Ping’s inauguration, he has repeatedly asserted the mantra that China is “committed to peaceful development”; to assuage neighbouring countries who fear that the realisation of the Chinese Dream will come at the cost of their sovereignty. To the UN, he proclaimed that “no matter how the international landscape may evolve and how strong we may become, China will never pursue hegemony or expansion, nor will it seek to create spheres of influence. This has fallen on deaf ears. China’s militarisation of the contested islands in the SCS has further inflamed fears of a hegemonic agenda. However, seen in light of its constraints, China’s moves are merely steps to guarantee their economic future – key to achieving the Chinese Dream.
China’s economy is largely dependent on safe passage of trade through the SCS. Unfortunately, it is constrained by its geography. Their maritime borders are encircled by the USA and regional Asian states, most of which are in alliance with the USA. Therefore, their fortification of the islands and modernisation of their navy, are for the purpose of securing these trade routes and establishing a Maritime Silk Road of which Australia is a major country at the end of this route. China as an economy, is also dependent on world markets for their resources, whether it be food or iron ore, underlining the need for these trade routes to remain secure and open. Fears that China could close off the SCS, obstructing world trade, are therefore irrational as China has a large interest in keeping them open to the world as well.
China is also haunted by its past humiliations which began by being outflanked at sea by Western and Japanese imperialism; a sore spot still, that China seeks to remedy. Therefore China endeavours to quash the possibility of the US and its allies caging it by securing a perimeter at sea. In response to their century of humiliation, these military moves also serve to send a message to the world and more importantly, the Chinese people: that China is returning as a great power and should garner the respect deserving of such a status; cementing the Communist Party’s legitimacy as they reclaim China’s dignity amongst its neighbours in the SCS. Most crucially, China truly believes that the islands and their surrounding resources historically belong to them.
While we may not agree with China’s motivations, neither is there a guarantee that these motivations have not already morphed into hegemonic aspirations if we keep them in mind, it will allow us to act in a manner sensitive to China’s concerns, but most importantly, prevent us from seeing China’s actions in binary, zero-sum vision: introducing a world of hope and possibilities to resolve this dilemma. This is the first and crucial step that allows the imagining of a peaceful resolution that addresses mutual concerns. Australia must therefore, stop and taste the pot, or otherwise risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of war.
AIIA NSW intern, January – June 2018
 Xi, JinPing (2017) The Governance of China. Foreign Languages Press: Beijing, p 574.