Understanding China's sea fever: Dawn columnist

A woman walking past a poster of the South China Sea in Weifang, east China's Shandong province.
A woman walking past a poster of the South China Sea in Weifang, east China's Shandong province.PHOTO: AFP

China has few friends left in the region and that is why the importance of the China-Pakistan economic corridor and Pakistan has increased manifold.

Zarrar Khuhro

Dawn/Asia News Network

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) routinely makes headlines in Pakistan, which is to be expected given the scale of this project and its importance for the country.

However, there is rarely any discussion or analysis on why this corridor, and the wider One Belt, One Road project, is so crucial for China and how recent events are only increasing Beijing's urgency.

One such event was the ruling given on July 12 on the South China Sea arbitration case, a case that was filed by the Philippines against China, challenging China's claims over the South China Sea. The arbitration tribunal ruled that China has no "historical right" backing its claims and called on China to stop its activities in the South China Sea.

The importance of the congested and highly contested South China Sea is partly due to its rich fisheries and energy deposits, but to Beijing these waterways are quite literally a lifeline for trade and transit.

Disputes between China and the littoral states of the congested South China Sea have been long-standing, with Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and others looking askance at China's claims over the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and also condemning Beijing's construction of 'man-made' islands in the area.

Perhaps anticipating the verdict, which rejected China's 'nine-dash line' claim to most of the South China Sea, Beijing began casting doubt on the tribunal's fairness well in advance of the verdict, even alleging that the Japanese head of the tribunal was a right-winger and thus inherently biased against China.

Predictably, China has rejected the verdict, saying it is "null and void" and has threatened to impose an air defence zone over the South China Sea. In doing so, China is following the time-honoured tradition of Great Powers ignoring rulings that do not go in their favour. The US, which is the only country in the world to not ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, has itself done so on several occasions.

Now that the verdict is in, Beijing has little choice but to try and engage in bilateral negotiations with the claimant states, but this also seems like a non-starter. The Philippines, for example, rejected an offer to engage in talks over the South China Sea, saying that doing so would not be "consistent with (their) constitution and national interest".

In Vietnam, nationalist feelings against China have risen to such an extent that a local broadcaster took a popular Chinese drama off air after one of the actors made statements in support of China's position.

Essentially, China has no friends in that region and even its so-called ally, North Korea, is increasingly a liability with its sabre-rattling providing a justification for the presence of US troops and also for increased military spending by states that feel threatened by Pyongyang.

But while it's tempting to see this as a case of a raging Gulliver being tied down by Lilliputians, that wouldn't be an accurate analogy. Backing these countries is the United States, which wants the South China Sea to remain classified as 'international waters' where the US Navy can operate openly.

This fits perfectly with the much-talked about 'Asian pivot', which calls for refocusing US attention on East Asia to confront and contain a rising China. While this term was first mentioned in 2011, the policy goals it represents are long-standing and were delayed only because of the geopolitical earthquake that was 9/11 and America's subsequent imperial adventures.

And while much is being made of Beijing's military spending and the expansion of its navy, those opposing Beijing in the region are no military slouches either.

You may be surprised to learn that Japan's defence budget in 2015 was a whopping $41 billion, which places it at number eight in the list of top military spenders, just below India and France. Moreover, Japan's nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also worked to slowly erode Japan's pacifism, passing legislation last year allowing the Japanese military to engage in overseas missions.

Further afield, India is also pleased at the discomfort the ruling has caused China. About 55pc of Indian trade passes through the South China Sea, and joint Vietnamese-Indian energy exploration ventures in these waters have also raised hackles in Beijing as has India's support for Vietnam and the Philippines in their tussle with China.

And then there's the behemoth that is the US Navy. Aware that it cannot hope to match the US ship for ship, Beijing has opted to emphasise anti-ship missiles and other area denial weapons systems to deter any possible aggression. None of this, however, means that China could possibly prevail against a US-backed coalition in the nightmare scenario of a naval blockade.

What this adds up to is that China is increasingly isolated and cornered in the East Asia region, to the satisfaction of strategic planners from Washington to New Delhi.

This also means that the importance of CPEC, and of Pakistan, just increased manifold.