Strategic overstretch in the South China Sea?
Empires have a means of crumbling. More often than not it is when they attempt to control far-away places which are hard to protect effectively. As a result ,when there is an invasion or a natural disaster, it has been hard for the capital of the empire to get troops out to the distant land to protect it from the onslaught of barbarians or from the savage effects of nature. This is what could be defined as strategic overstretch, where an empire’s eyes become too big for its stomach. The Romans were unable to protect their German lands from invading Goths, many a Chinese dynasty struggled to hold back the Xiongnu and the Mongolians from the north, even, in a slightly different capacity, the might of the British Navy wasn’t enough to keep all of its subjects under control.
China’s military is impressive. With the swift economic growth it has experienced since opening up in the 1980s, it has been able to invest in the latest hardware and software that will enable its troops to fight effectively in wars. It has rapidly built up its presence, as well as a seemingly permanent town, on its border with India with whom it has been skirmishing this year. It has also built military bases on the Spratly and Paracel islands. It is the last of these which has caused the most international consternation, for China has flatly refused to accept the controversial 2016 ruling that they do not actually own 90% of the Sea. Part of the reason this was brought to the international tribunal was because it is believed that there are large oil and gas deposits underneath the sea – hence the need for well-defined boundaries. In line with this wish to define which resources belong to who, China has also stated it wants to ensure its fishing boats are undisturbed as they go about their business. These artificial islands may simply act as a resting point for Chinese trawlers, but it has naturally caused jitters amongst their neighbours that a situation may occur where a Filipino coast guard will have to take on a Chinese destroyer.
However, there is another, more sinister reason to China’s build up in the region, which is that it intends to use these island outposts as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance hub in order to assist the PLA in countering any US intervention in a war China might launch if it invades Taiwan. In any battle, having superior amounts of information can be the difference between defeat and victory, and the common belief is that these islands will be important in that.
This conventional wisdom though, should not be wholeheartedly accepted. A recent ‘Naval and Merchant Ships’ article, a Chinese military magazine, may have confidently stated that not only would the island bases facilitate information superiority over the US in the region, they would also be able to interrupt US military communications systems. However, the same article went on to point out that the artificial islands are vulnerable to an attack due to their distance from the mainland alongside their physical lack of size. The article continues, suggesting support ships responding to an attack by the Americans, would need at least 20 hours to head into combat. Not only this, but the islands, being in an area of the world used to typhoons among other things, may be damaged simply by the weather.
This brings me back to my initial point, which is to question whether possession of the islands are actually beneficial in the first place from a military standpoint. There is no doubt that what China is doing in the South China Sea is contentious, and according to international law, wrong. They do not own 90% of the Sea. Rights over the energy resources beneath the sea as well as fishing rights are important to resolve but these are separate to the issue of military capability as a result of these bases. In the event of conflict over Taiwan, the military bases are therefore less useful than it might otherwise seem, and will likely easily be taken out quickly should it be deemed necessary.
China may be able to unilaterally assert its claim to the resources under the South China Sea, but if China’s ultimate ambition is to reduce American influence in its back yard, then getting into arguments with its neighbours over boundaries on top of building vulnerable bases is unlikely to successfully achieve that goal.