At a handsome new building on Hainan Island, the headquarters of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a video is played to visitors. As Jane Perlez writes for the NYT:
The video says that China enjoys maritime rights over “a vast area” of the South China Sea, though it does not specify how much. The 1.4 million square miles of the sea are “crucial to the future of China as a growing maritime nation,” since the sea is a trade conduit between China and the United States, Africa and Europe, the video says.
This view that the South China Sea is “crucial” for China’s security and economy is becoming common not only in the talking points of a few hardliners but also at the highest levels of China’s political and military leadership. As the country prepares for a leadership change later this year, it is vital for Chinese elites not to be seen as weak on matters of such importance.At stake are oil reserves believed to be almost equal to Saudi Arabia’s. Already China, the Philippines, and Vietnam are selling territorial blocks to international oil companies like Exxon Mobil for exploration even though ownership over those areas is undetermined.New and bigger ships are patrolling disputed waters, running into the neighbors, setting up governance outposts, airstrips, and military patrols on tiny islets. The language of top security and policy officials is hardening:
The sustained attention to the South China Sea has been almost certainly coordinated from the senior ranks of the central government, Chinese analysts and Asian diplomats said. “Suddenly, the top leaders have taken a more hard-line policy,” said Shi Yinhong, a foreign policy adviser to the State Council, China’s equivalent to the cabinet.
Perhaps all this posturing is intended to put China’s leadership in a strong position on national security prior to changes later this year, and to smooth the transition. All signals say otherwise, however. China and its neighbors have fought over the islands a number of times in the past, and there is little hope for a regional agreement at present. As Andrew Nathan of Columbia University told Bloomberg: “There is no advantage for China to back down or enter negotiations. China won’t calm down, and the current posture reflects a long-established strategy to reassert its claims steadily over time without ceding an inch.”