Rising tensions: China’s PLA asserts dominance over 90 percent of South China Sea

India, Japan, Australia, and the US are all striving to maintain an Indo-Pacific region that is open and unrestricted for international trade and navigation. In addition, the US’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific region includes efforts to curb China’s growing influence. This involves the use of diplomatic and economic tactics to counter China’s dominance and to hinder China’s attempts to set up permanent bases in the region.

China’s Blue Dragon strategy, aimed at expanding its terrestrial and maritime influence, is challenging the Biden administration’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region’s freedom and openness. This multi-faceted strategy involves military, economic, and diplomatic efforts, including territorial claims and strategic partnerships. Its long-term effectiveness, facing opposition from the U.S. and its allies, is yet to be determined.

China’s Blue Dragon strategy, which complements the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is a comprehensive plan involving military, economic, and infrastructure aspects. It aims to increase connectivity, bolster its naval presence, and assert dominance in regional waters. The strategy targets the security of the Indo-Pacific, aiming to control navigation and trade. It poses challenges to Taiwan, Japan, ASEAN countries within the 9-dash line, India, and the Indian Ocean region. While the strategy appears cohesive, China approaches each target country based on its unique circumstances.

A former diplomat turned academic US Professor Patrick Mendis, offers a unique analogy for China’s Blue Dragon strategy. He likens it to the Glaucus atlanticus, a small yet potent sea slug found in oceans worldwide. While not a direct comparison, the creature’s aggressive nature mirrors China’s assertive strategy. China’s focus areas include the East China Sea, where it confronts Japan; the South China Sea, where it disputes ASEAN countries’ claims; and the Indian Ocean, where it contends with India’s influence.

China has staked claims on artificial and reclaimed islands, aiming to expand its exclusive economic zones and disrupt regular trade, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It has militarized small islands in the South China Sea, equipping them with coastal radars, missile bases, and runways. These fortified islands have rendered the deployment of China’s aircraft carriers in the South China Sea unnecessary, as these bases can perform similar functions.

China’s Blue Dragon strategy, updated with a 10-dash line in 2023, asserts control over 90% of the South China Sea. It supports IUU fishing in other nations’ EEZs, backed by its Coast Guard law and force if required. The assertive Chinese Coast Guard also intrudes into ASEAN nations’ maritime outposts. Vietnam, however, has contained the dispute through quiet diplomacy and non-confrontation.

In a shift from the passive stance of the Rodrigo Duterte era, President Ferdinand Marcos has begun to contest China’s intentions towards its islands. The Philippines has rekindled its alliance with the U.S. and bolstered ties with Japan. The 10-dash line extends to waters near Malaysia and Brunei, but these nations offer little resistance to Chinese flotillas traversing their waters. Taiwan, another claimant of certain regional islands, is at odds with China, which perceives Taiwanese leaders as seeking U.S.-backed independence, a notion China is keen to suppress.

Historically, Indonesia wasn’t directly impacted by the 9-dash line. However, during President Joko Widodo’s initial term, attempts to downplay issues with China were countered by Chinese fishing fleets, supported by the Coast Guard, encroaching on the Natuna Sea. In response, Indonesia made symbolic gestures, such as conducting a cabinet meeting on a warship in the disputed waters. Despite efforts by Indonesia’s nascent Navy to control Chinese fishing activities, China’s dominance persists. The Blue Dragon strategy also encompasses Sri Lanka and the Maldives, providing China with routes from the South China Sea to the western Indian Ocean.

Chinese bases are expected in Myanmar, while Gwadar, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is still developing. Chinese vessels often dock in Sri Lanka and Maldives, particularly during India’s missile tests. These facilities’ closeness to India raises concerns. Diplomatic efforts to align these countries with India’s viewpoint have had mixed success. India seeks balanced economic ties, urging Sri Lanka and Maldives to avoid over-reliance on China, which could threaten India’s security.

The responses of Sri Lanka and the Maldives to India and China largely depend on their current governments. Sri Lanka’s interim President, Ranil Wickremasinghe, attempts to balance relations with India while not halting Chinese activities. Conversely, the Maldives not only permits Chinese operations but also uses them to provoke India. Indian diplomacy, exemplified by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to the leaders of both nations for his inauguration, has shown commendable maturity. The United States, Western powers, and other influential nations must adopt proactive measures to counteract China’s assertive maritime activities directed against its neighboring countries. Without such intervention, maintaining peace and strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific region could become increasingly challenging.