Control Through Cooperation? Assessing China's Economic and Military-Strategic Interests in the South China Sea

Purpose—China’s assertive policy toward the South China Sea (SCS) is commonly explained as a function of Beijing’s objective to control shipping lanes and resources (fish, hydrocarbons), and to cater to nationalist sentiments. Some publications also point to the alternative explanation of China’s military-strategic interests. By analyzing Beijing’s SCS policy, including aggressive action but also offers of cooperation, this article determines which explanation is adequate.

Findings—China not only coerces SCS littoral states, but also offers cooperation in maritime security and joint resource exploration. As the example of the Philippines demonstrates, these offers are predicated on littoral states’ unequivocal acceptance of illegal Chinese territorial claims. Beijing views joint resource exploration as means to the end of physical control over SCS maritime territory, supporting its military-strategic interests. If the littoral state accepts China’s territorial claims, it is granted access to resources within its EEZ or may develop said resources jointly with China.

Practical Implications—Asia-Pacific states should reconsider their SCS policies, accounting for the fact that China’s ultimate objective is not control over commercial shipping lanes and resources, but the deployment of military assets on SCS maritime territory to support A2/AD and further military-strategic objectives.

Originality/Value—The analysis of Beijing’s SCS policy demonstrates the limitations of the common economic security explanation and corroborates the alternative, traditional
security explanation in the literature.