The South China Sea is an area where the rivalry of U.S.-China relations is directly projected. South Korea may be also forced to make a choice if U.S.-China relations deteriorate in the South China Sea. In one such instance, President Park Geun-hye, while in Washington, was asked by U.S. President Barack Obama to clarify South Korea’s position on the South China Sea.
The South China Sea is a geographical hub through which half of the world’s commerce vessels pass, and its strategic value became further highlighted when it was reported that a third of the world’s oil and gas reserves were buried there. With that, the conflict phase has further intensified. Countries that can control the route through the South China Sea are aware that they can secure a strategic route to Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region.
Against this backdrop, the South China Sea has recently been transformed into an arena of struggle for supremacy between the U.S. and China; and the “rise of China” has been the most important underlying factor. China claims 80% of the entire South China Sea; the U.S. dismisses this by conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP), served by the U.S. Navy in the sea since China constructed seven artificial islands in the Spratlys.
China is insisting on the historic sovereignty of the South China Sea, saying the region was “where our ancestors lived in the past,” according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. “If China changes its stance on the South China Sea, that will be a disgrace to our ancestors,” Wang said, by invoking the Confucian value to underscore how much importance China attaches to the sea. For Asians, respect for ancestors has great meaning.
In 2010, China designated the South China Sea as China’s “core interest” region. According to the Chinese Communist Party, “core interest” is the top-level national interest among the three interests (core, major and general). Specifically, it is an interest the “nation’s survival” (guojia de shengcun) depends on, and therefore there cannot be “no room for compromise” (burong tuoxie).
Since China declared the South China Sea as its “core interest” region, by its own design it is therefore difficult for China to negotiate a solution, unless the incoming Trump administration makes conciliatory gestures first. But that is unlikely. Trump, as a starter, already shamed China by speaking directly to Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen and even calling her “president.” Taiwan is another core interest, designated by China.
What is noteworthy from now on is how much China will be tempted to “test” Trump, who has no political experience. China previously tested “Hamlet”-style leader Obama in the South China Sea to check on America’s resolve. Obama declared a “pivot to Asia” and announced plans to deploy 60% of naval forces in the Asia-Pacific region, but he did not follow up on his words by underwriting any military deterrence against China. For that, the Trump side criticized Obama as “speaking loudly but carrying a small stick.”
What is worrisome is that the importance of the South China Sea to China is more than symbolic, more than political rhetoric, but something directly related to China’s future development strategy. China’s “one-belt-one-road” diplomacy, combined with its proclamation as a “maritime power,” has implications for the securing of marine bridgeheads and securing energy from the South China Sea.
In addition, as the U.S. has to deal with the “Trump liability,” China also has to deal with the “Xi Jinping factor.” Xi is increasingly revealing himself as a uniquely strong and uncompromising leader, who emphasized “the army that can win when they fight,” who added the holy term “core” to his authority. He is someone who feels the historic mission to realize the “China Dream,” by restoring its old glory. It was also Xi who declared China as a maritime power, alerting American strategists.
Xi is a leader who rules China in the post-“tao guang yang hui” (hide its ambitions and disguise its claws) period. This is an ambitious period for China. There is an increasing mass psyche in China that a conflict with the United States is a “growing pain” and is unavoidable in the course of its emergence as a great nation.
The problem with the South China Sea is that it is increasingly becoming a conflict between the U.S. and China that is structural in nature. Worse, the combination of Xi who wants the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” and Trump, who wants to “make America great again” may contain more uncertainty than pundits entertain today.
Lee Seong-hyon, Ph.D., is a research fellow at the Sejong Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org