China’s Pivot to the Sea: The Greatest Game Changer?


While China’s rise is causing the quantitatively largest changes in Asia-Pacific security, its seaward turn is qualitatively the most consequential development, believes Dr Alexander L Vuving

What is the key thing that is changing the game nations play in the Asia-Pacific? Judging from the most influential opinions in the media, the top pick is likely to be the rise of China. Obvious as it may seem, this is a wrong answer. While China’s rise is causing the quantitatively largest changes in Asia-Pacific security, its seaward turn is qualitatively the most consequential development.

Unprecedented Maritime Orientation

China has risen to the top of Asia several times in the past, but its current reorientation towards the maritime realm has no precedent in history. If past were prologue, the rise of China would not really affect US naval superiority in the Western Pacific, and a hegemonic clash between US and China could be avoided. This view supplies the core vision for the strategy of offshore balancing, which is prevalent in the United States today and which many think is the grand strategy actually pursued by President Barack Obama.

As China is a land power, it is argued, its rise in power will make it a giant elephant. The United States, on the other hand, is like a big whale. While both are powerful, they are powerful in their own realm, and neither possesses the physical wherewithal or the political will to dictate events in the other’s geographic domain. The implication is that if Washington accepts Beijing’s pre-eminence on the Asian mainland, it can dodge an unnecessary conflict with China while maintaining its dominant role in maritime Asia.

A strong supporter of this view is former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski is also the promoter of the concept of a US-China G-2, which he proposed, reportedly as Obama’s informal messenger, while in Beijing days before Obama took office. In his book Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, Brzezinski contends that the real contest for primacy in Asia will take place not between the American whale and the Chinese elephant, but between two Asian elephants, namely China and India. Given the limits of sea power in such a continental competition, he counsels the United States to stay detached and refuse formal strategic ties with India that could entangle Washington in a major land commitment. An aloof approach would see the United States emerge as a classic offshore balancer, leaving it free to play one land power against the other or to watch China and India exhaust themselves as Washington husbands its strength on the sidelines.

Such a nimble strategy is highly appealing in a cost-conscious era and is intuitively the first choice of an America weary of overseas involvements. Yet, the core idea behind this strategy rests on an incorrect reading of geopolitical trends in the past century. Industrialisation and globalisation combined has shifted the economic heart of Asia from the mainland to the sea. Reflecting this trend, China is no longer the self-sustained empire of the past; its economy is dependent on the trade routes in the East Asian Seas. Not surprisingly, China increasingly exhibits the conviction that an ascent to Asian primacy requires control of the region’s maritime domains.

Against this backdrop, it makes sense why China stepped up the dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and set up an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, why it forcibly grabbed the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines and unilaterally installed a $1 billion oil rig in waters within Vietnamese EEZ, and why it is building large military bases on naturally submerged reefs in the Spratly Islands and harassed US Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea.

Traditionally, China’s grand strategy was oriented toward the continental side of its territory. Except for a few occasions during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the Chinese empire largely tolerated other powers’ naval supremacy in the seas off its coasts. This coexistence of Chinese hegemony on the mainland and foreign dominance in the maritime domain resulted from three major conditions, none of which exists in the present day.

Overarching Importance of the Maritime Domain

In the pre-industrial era, China was most vulnerable to its north and west, where it faced the time’s most agile and penetrating forces from Inner Asian nomads. Their mounted archers would dash in, break through, and conquer the entire Chinese heartland. The threats they posed dwarfed those of the seafarers coming from the east and the south, who could at most raid the cities and villages along the Chinese coast.

But since the 19th century, the military Achilles’ heel of China has shifted to its seaside. The mounted archers of today are aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines armed with supersonic and stealth aircrafts, drones, and cruise missiles. According to China’s strategic planners today, control of the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea has become critical to China’s defence and security.

These seas are also of vital importance for China economically. Pre-industrial China was virtually a self-sustained world and didn’t depend on foreign trade to flourish. This is all passé. The rise of China in recent decades is owed primarily to the country’s economic integration with the world outside. Since the launch of ‘reform and opening’ in 1979, the rate of China’s dependence on foreign trade, expressed by the foreign trade share of gross domestic product, has surged from around 10 percent to over 70 percent. Adding to this general reliance, since 1998, China has been a net importer of energy. The World Bank reported that China’s net energy imports reached 11 percent of its total energy use in 2011. These statistics indicate that China’s economy would practically collapse if trade with the outside world were cut off. What makes the maritime domain even more vital to China is the fact that most of its foreign trade and energy imports are shipped through the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and the Malacca Strait.

Economic and Military Magnitude

It is not only China that is dependent on the sea lanes of communication that run through these waters. In fact, these East Asian Seas are the lifeline of Asia. More than half of the region’s commodity trade, about a half of the foreign trade of China, India and Australia, roughly 80 percent of China’s oil and gas imports, 60 percent of Japan’s energy supplies, and two-thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies pass through these waters. The economic and military magnitude of the East Asian Seas guarantees that no country in modern Asia can assume regional primacy without first gaining naval supremacy in the Western Pacific.

There are three reasons why China in the past generally let others dominate the maritime zones off its coasts. Sometimes it was too weak to challenge the sea powers. Most of the time, these waters were not vital to China militarily and economically. Moreover, the powers that ruled them actively sought the status of tributaries and vassals to the Middle Kingdom.

None of these conditions would be the reality of today and tomorrow. China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy by the end of this decade. Its military expenditures are growing even faster than its economy. The seas surrounding China’s coasts have become critical to the country’s growth and defence. And the dominant power in maritime Asia, the United States, is unlikely to accept a subordinate status in a Chinese-led regional order.

Naval Supremacy: The Sine Qua Non of Regional Pre-eminence

Thanks to globalisation and new weapon technologies, sea and land are now part of a single strategic terrain in Asia. Naval supremacy has become the sine qua non of regional pre-eminence. For its part, the growth of China’s prosperity relies more on its access to the sea than its possession of the mainland market. Mindful of these new conditions, Chinese leaders, including former President Hu Jintao and current President Xi Jinping, have determined that China should become a ‘global maritime power.’

Six hundred years ago, China dispatched a huge fleet under the admiralship of the Muslim eunuch Zheng He to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to impose imperial control over Indo-Pacific trade and extend the empire’s tributary system. Although highly successful, the expeditions lasted less than three decades and proved an anomaly in Chinese history. After all, China remained an agrarian empire, and a large part of the mission of the Zheng He voyages was to impress foreign people in the Indo-Pacific basin.

Today, China turns seaward out of necessity rather than the desire to impress. As a result, this sea change has much more and far firmer roots than the maritime expeditions of six century ago. Compared with the Zheng He voyages, China’s current seaward turn is poised to be both more violent and more consequential. The sheer growth of Chinese power does not necessarily pose a threat to US dominance in the Asian seas and America’s role in the region. But the pivot to the sea of the Asian behemoth may put an end to US naval supremacy in the Indo-Pacific waters and, as a consequence, undermine the global order led by the US.

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Dr Alexander L Vuving

Dr Alexander L Vuving is Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of his employer.

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