Many things come to play when a country goes beyond its border to make claims and acts on it. They invoke international law, invite new states to become adversaries, and build new alliances against them. However, if done correctly, it has the potential to benefit itself in ways unmatchable to staying silent. This article does not discuss ethics or the ‘right’ thing to do but assesses why this is happening and how it could benefit China.
China, a rising superpower, has come a long way from fighting a civil war just after World War 2, pursuing economic policies that failed severely, to being amongst the top countries in terms of military, economic growth, and more. China’s rise has been peaceful compared to other superpowers of their time. However, China is breaking the silence that it has successfully maintained for decades now, finding it perfect for moving ahead with a rigorous foreign policy as it now has the potential and power to do so. It has permeated itself into the world economy so much that if factories in China close, it can disrupt the world’s supply chain, as seen during the outbreak of covid-19. Countries have realised this and started looking for alternatives to save themselves from being dictated by China’s terms. The trend shows that when a country rises and has tremendous economic growth and military backup, it can dictate terms and conditions. China has been successful in doing so, which will be discussed in brief later in this article. So, why is China now making claims on foreign territories (which, it claims, are part of its mainland)?
Firstly, territorial claims are not just limited to a few of its (land) neighbouring countries (like India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Mongolia) but also Vietnam, Taiwan, The Philippines, and Laos. The list goes on. While territorial disputes with countries like India, Nepal, and Bhutan flare up occasionally, the conflicts in the South China Sea and Taiwan are constant; it has made the involvement of other countries necessary in the region to contain China’s recklessness. China even made its own Maritime Traffic Safety Law (MTSL) which makes it mandatory for states to have permission from China to navigate freely in its jurisdictional waters (which extends further from EEZ); if not done, China can resort to force for infringing on Chinese sovereignty. The MTSL surpasses UNCLOS, which gives other states the freedom to navigate freely. This unilateral decision also includes the contested islands in the South China Sea, giving China the sole authority and de facto control, making these islands legally consolidated with China. ‘By defining baselines far beyond those allowed by UNCLOS terms, China inflated its resulting territorial sea and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), infringing upon the rights of other nations to use those waters as allowed by international law’ (Trung & Ngan, 2021). The claimant’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and China’s EEZ clash here because both lay claims, while China claims all of the South China Sea as its territory- using its nine-dash line as a reference point. Again, laying historical claim and ignoring the UN Maritime Law of EEZ 200 nm, by which many of the islands belong to the claimants’ states.
Just making laws would not do, and China knows it well. Hence, it resorts to power projection- making artificial islands, setting massive militaries, and being the most considerable naval power in South China to intimidate other states. It even dismissed the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, which favoured the Philippines’ right to rule over its territories. Even though China had signed the UNCLOS, it still did not follow it.
China wants to run its trade smooth for that undisrupted access to the South China Sea. Unsurprisingly, the world’s 40% of liquified natural gas passes through here- from the Gulf through the Indian ocean also, $3trillion of the worth of trade sails through here- 1/3rd of the world’s total. Hence, it becomes crucial for China to exert its control over all the choke points in the Indian Ocean or the South China Sea to make sure no other countries can ever play on its vulnerability while it can. Similarly, in the Indo-pacific, it follows a ‘pearl neck policy’ to gain a strategic position against India in times of conflict, i.e., by encircling India by establishing naval bases in surrounding countries.
China’s actions raise suspicion and concerns because it does not conform to international norms and law. Whenever a country tries to ignore this, especially to expand its reach and control, it is bound to invite some reactions. China was already a superpower ruling world economy and trade at the days, but this changed when colonisation and the industrial revolution happened. After World War 2, when countries gave in to capitalism to revive their economy and eradicate poverty, China isolated itself, reaching rock bottom; and it was when Deng Xiaoping took charge to change this, that China got back to being a superpower again. Losing so much already, China wants back the territories which were once part of the kingdom and even those which were not. It wants its supremacy back. For this, it is going after sinking economies, offering glamourous deals like the BRI, which looks like benefiting to all (maybe in the short term) but ultimately, it is China that will dominate and will have control. It is not about the economy as much as it is about control, and to have that control, it would not mind making huge investments as even if the countries cannot pay the debt, China would get the property on lease, which it can then use to build naval bases. The countries see it as focused on them, but it is just a tiny portion of China’s colossal infrastructure plan to build this silk road which had existed centuries ago. In other words, ‘To recapture the diminishing appeal of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi Jinping has tried to sell the CPC as the inheritor and successor to a 5,000-year-old great Chinese empire. In this charade, President Xi Jinping envisions himself as a modern-day Chinese emperor in the mould of rulers of the Ming and Qing dynasties, the two great dynasties of historical China’ (Expansionist China a Dangerous Cocktail of Past and Present, 2020)
- Trung, N. T., & Ngan, L. N. K. (2021, September 28). Codifying Waters and Reshaping Orders: China’s Strategy for Dominating the South China Sea. Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. https://amti.csis.org/codifying-waters-and-reshaping-orders-chinas-strategy-for-dominating-the-south-china-sea/
- Gumaste, Vivek. (2020, July 26), Expansionist China a dangerous cocktail of past and present. . The Sunday Guardian Live. https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/news/expansionist-china-dangerous-cocktail-past-present