Nationalism and Sea Lanes: Two Motivations Steering China in the South China Sea

What is the U.S. contribution to the cause? A twisting and turning military balance.

In a Washington Post opinion piece from May 16 written by Council on Foreign Relations fellows Elizabeth Economy and Michael Levi, the two express the need for real action and not just empty rhetoric by the United States regarding China’s recent behavior in the South China Sea. They further argue that if real action does not happen, U.S. credibility in the world will be lost.

In short, they argue that the oil drilling being conducted by China within waters claimed by Vietnam is not merely a hunt for energy resources, but [originates in] two separate motivating factors. The first factor is nationalism. The drilling is being done 120 nautical miles off the coast of Vietnam at the Paracel Islands — well within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. China claims the islands based on historical usage and effective exercise of sovereignty, and has occupied them since 1974. If China pulls out of the Paracel Islands, they will lose face. But by staying, domestic public support rises and the Chinese government strengthens its leadership domestically.

Economy and Levi argue that the second motivating factor is that Chinese leadership wants to control the sea lanes in the South China Sea. Over $5 trillion worth of trade passes through the South China Sea every year. That includes one-third of the world’s oil trade, and of that, three-fourths of China’s imported oil. The Chinese Navy hopes to challenge U.S. superiority in those important Middle Eastern sea lanes. Additionally, though China doesn’t have the power to control the Strait of Malacca, the United States couldn’t stop supplies to mainland China if the Chinese navy were able to mobilize in the South China Sea. This would give China a massive confidence boost in the international community.

The two authors further suggest that China may be trying to mask its military excursions as economy-expanding resource development in order to weaken opposition. If this is the case, Economy and Levi believe it has not been a successful strategy. Chinese actions are hurting [the country’s] claims of prioritizing strong relations within the region as its top foreign policy. These actions cast doubt on the Chinese commitment to talks with Vietnam to jointly extract Vietnamese resources from the South China Sea.

The United States is not taking a side in the issue, but urges peaceful resolution between both parties. The authors believe this is not enough. They further say that the United States must call China’s bluff and make clear the real stakes. They claim the United States and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) must show a united front by refusing to recognize unilateral assertions of territorial claims.

They further argue that another crucial point is the need for the United States to be prepared to back up its rhetoric. The United States has not concluded any treaty obligation to defend Vietnam, but the United States has prominence in its role as the primary guarantor of stability in the Pacific. China’s actions challenge that role.

Vietnam has reiterated its commitment to a peaceful resolution to the dispute. Economy and Levi believe that if China does not reciprocate, the United States should show support to Vietnam by increasing its naval presence in the region. This would be worthwhile to Washington for calming the situation and ascertaining Chinese capability. Other options, such as restrictions on the activities of the China National Offshore Oil Corporation within the United States should be considered. Lastly, Economy and Levi state that if the words of the United States do not match its actions, credibility of U.S. promises to stabilize and support the region will be lost.


Economy is a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations and Levi is an expert on energy issues at the same organization. The Okazaki Institute believes the idea of taking visible action and not just [issuing] rhetoric is appropriate. We can surmise that this opinion piece contains a feeling of impatience, and looks at America’s current actions in a poor light overall.

Saying that, the proposed idea in this piece of putting pressure on China by achieving and maintaining unification in South East Asia, as well as building a strong presence through increased U.S. naval capacity, would be nothing short of a frontal attack toward China. It must be stated that this is a scenario that would not be easy to achieve. Certainly, issues surrounding ASEAN and unification are registering in the minds of more and more people. However, the Okazaki Institute feels that the United States has already lost its chance to assertively push this type of strategy.

From the very beginning, there has been a need for increased naval might and deployment from the United States, but from an outsider’s perspective, the limitations of the current U.S. domestic budget make this an impossible prospect. In addition to this, there is a twisting and turning military balance in the South China Sea due to the sudden escalation of Chinese defense capability over the past 30 years.

China’s recent proliferation of 4th generation military equipment has created a question mark over whether air superiority of the South China Sea can be maintained solely through U.S. aircraft carriers. Especially when it comes to submarine force, many believe the situation will resolve itself as a military balance in which it will be difficult for the United States to maintain its fleet in the South China Sea, since Japan has zero antisubmarine aircraft ability. The defense of sea lanes through the use of a collective self-defense is beyond a theoretical issue for Japan now — it is an indispensable need.

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