China-US rivalry fuels tensions in South China Sea

Jan 08, 2015 12:00 AM

Analysts say that China’s long term strategic contest with the U.S., rather than a grab for oil and gas, better explains Beijing’s maritime assertion in the South China Sea

China is set to step up investments in off-shore oil-fields, but its nuclear strategy towards the United States, rather than demand for energy security, maybe at the heart of its assertion in the South China Sea.

Shanghai’s National Business Daily is reporting that the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has accelerated oil exploration, especially in the western region of the South China Sea.

The goal is to construct a big off-shore oilfield that would have an output of 10 million tonnes.

The focus on off-shore exploration follows the depletion of existing on-shore oilfields. By 2020, yearly output from Daqing — China’s largest oilfield — is expected to drop to 32 million tonnes, 8 million tonnes lower than the current production level. Other fields are also expected to suffer a similar fate.

China’s burgeoning energy demand does appear to be a factor fuelling its assertion in South China Sea, and sharpening its disputes with littoral states, especially Vietnam and the Philippines, along with Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China claims a large maritime space, defined by the "nine-dash line" that stretches hundreds of kilometers south and east of its southerly Hainan Island, covering the strategic Paracel and Spratly island chains. China buttresses its claims by citing 2,000 years of history, when the two island chains were regarded as its integral parts. But Vietnam rejects the Chinese argument, justifying its own claims, on the basis of written records, which, in its view establish its administration over the area since the 17th century.

Beijing and Manila clash on account of their dispute over the jurisdiction of the Scarborough shoal, which is 160 kilometers from the Philippines.

Signalling its intent to hold on to its claims, China, on Monday, set sail Sansha I, its latest supply ship, from Hainan for Yongxing Island (Woody island), the largest of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China sea, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Countering the energy argument, several analysts assert that China’s long term strategic contest with the United States, based on its nuclear doctrine, rather than a grab for oil and gas, better explains Beijing’s maritime assertion in the South China Sea.

Protection of naval assets, especially a select group nuclear submarines, which give China its second strike capability and assured deterrence vis-à-vis the U.S. seem to be compelling Beijing to keep out rivals from the South China Sea.

China has only recently acquired the JL-2 missiles, with a 7350 kilometer reach, which have been mounted on the JIN class of submarines. China’s second strike capability is also being reinforced with the development of the 11,000 kilometer range missiles, which will be mounted on the 096 Tang class nuclear submarines, says a Russian military website. In order to have a credible deterrent, these platforms and weapons, with an intercontinental strike range, need to be deployed closer to fully protected home shores.

Writing in The Diplomat, Japanese academic Tetsuo Kotani points out that precisely because it now needs protection of its naval crown jewels from a closer range US strike, especially from a dedicated antisubmarine force, that China is driven to dominate of the South China Sea. The protection of its underwater submarine naval base at Hainan Island, through layered defences and air cover, is now critical.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had responded similarly by dominating the Sea of Okhotsk in order to protect its second strike assets. The Soviet Pacific Fleet deployed 100 submarines, combined with 140 surface warships, including a Kiev-class light aircraft carrier, to defend its submarine launched ballistic missiles. However, China’s predicament is more problematic, because unlike the Sea of Okhotsk, the South China Sea is a busy international waterway, and one of the main arteries of the global economy and trade, critical to the rest of the world.

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