The South China Sea: Understanding the Dragon’s Appetite for Islands

By Sarah Choong Ee Mei

According to an ancient Chinese war treatise, as described in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, “if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’’ [1] Despite the fact that the South China Sea island disputes are one of the biggest potential flashpoints for conflict in recent times, little attempt has been made to understand the rationale behind the actions of the biggest claimant state – China.

Of the six states involved in the dispute, namely Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — China is the only state claiming nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea – a region engulfing the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal [2]. China does so based on historical claims and by referring to the ‘Nine-Dash Line’, which is a U-shaped demarcation line first asserted by the Republic of China back in 1947 [3]. Significantly, the ‘Nine-Dash Line’ goes against the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982, Article 57, which states that a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from its baselines. Nevertheless, China’s assertion of its claims has intensified with the alarming transformation of seven reefs (Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Hughes Reef, Johnson Reef, Mischief Reef and Subi Reef) into artificial islands, complete with airstrips and anti-air defence capabilities to conduct Chinese military operations.

China’s ‘Nine-Dash Line’, representing its claim of most of the South China Sea

Swimming in Contested Waters 

Given that most of the islands are uninhabitable and often submerged during high tides, one cannot help but wonder: why is the South China Sea so highly contested? Firstly, the region is rich in oil. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 11 billion barrels of oil reserves can be found in the South China Sea. However, Chinese calculations place estimates much higher at 130 billion barrels of oil, making the South China Sea the most oil-rich region in the world, ranking second to Saudi Arabia [4]. Regardless of whether Chinese calculations are accurate, the belief in the region’s resource potential helps partly explain China’s aggression.

Secondly, the South China Sea is one of the most important trade routes in the world with US$5.3 trillion worth of international trade passing through its waters every year, accounting for more than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage. These waters are also of particular importance for China as more than 80% of its oil imports arrive from the Middle East via the South China Sea.

Thirdly, beyond material incentives, there are historical and cultural reasons that need to be accounted for. Until its encounter with European powers in the 19th century, China had long regarded itself as the centre of the world – the Middle Kingdom. This mentality, coupled with the legacy of the tributary system and its character as a civilization-state, heavily influences China’s foreign relations in the region and in the world today [5]. In fact, it is worth noting that the Mandarin word for modern day China is zhong guo (中国), defined in English as the Middle Kingdom.

Beginning with the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220AD), China administered a tributary system where neighbouring states showed deference to China by embarking on tribute missions to give gifts and to verbally acknowledge the superiority of the Chinese emperor [6]. In exchange, these nations were bestowed with gifts and opportunities to trade with China. For the Han dynasty, the tributary system was also a means to bribe China’s enemies with treasure and trade in order to avoid fighting protracted border wars. Furthermore, China reached the zenith of its naval glory during the Ming Dynasty with Admiral Zheng He’s seven voyages, sailing across the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond [7]. During this time, China was a powerful state and reached a peak of naval technology that was unsurpassed in the world.

However, after centuries of dominance in Asia, the Middle Kingdom began to crumble during a 100-year period known as the ‘Century of Humiliation’ — dating from 1839 to 1949. During this time, China suffered at the hands of foreign powers, faced humiliating defeats, ceded territories, and was often forced to sign unequal treaties or bu ping deng tiao yue (不平等条约). For instance, the Treaty of Nanking during the Opium Wars resulted in Hong Kong being ceded to Britain in 1842, while the Treaty of Shimonoseki led to Taiwan being ceded to Japan in 1895 following the Sino-Japanese Wars [8]. These shameful events in China’s eyes, coupled with the burning of the Summer Palace by British and French troops in 1860, adversely affected China’s perception of itself and its view of foreign powers.

The Rise of Communist China & The Politics of Humiliation

Following the ‘Century of Humiliation’, China’s foreign policy has increasingly reflected a desire to dispel the shameful events of the past and to return  to a position in which China would once again be at the centre of the East Asian order. The Chinese Dream or zhong guo meng (中国梦), as articulated by President Xi Jinping in late 2012, envisions reclaiming national pride. While China has witnessed the return of Hong Kong and Macau to its fold, the prominence of Taiwan as a lost territory marshals a longing to bring together a ‘Greater China’ where the country is finally united and restored [9]. Similarly, it is possible that China’s aggression in the South China Sea is a manifestation of this belief – to reclaim lost territories back to China.

Further, China’s foreign relations might also be directed at reviving a neo-Confucian world order based on the tributary system [10]. Economic strategies, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013, seem poised at drawing neighbouring states back into China’s sphere of influence in a manner resembling the ancient tributary system. Additionally, akin to the bestowing of gifts by the Han Emperor to quell conflict with tributary states, China’s investment projects seem aimed at purchasing the silence of economically troubled Southeast Asian states over their claims of the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

Lastly, China’s militarization in the South China Sea needs to be understood from a historical and cultural standpoint. After 100 years of unequal treaties and shame, it comes as no surprise that a rising China now seeks to restore itself to the glory that was once imperial China. The ‘return of the dragon’ signals a demand for recognition from its neighbours and from the international community — China is hungry for power and hungry for islands.

Sarah Choong ( is pursuing her MA International Relations at King’s College London. She is the recipient of the Top 5 Best Delegate Award at the ASEAN Youth Summit 2012 in Jakarta, Indonesia. She will also be working as an intern at the International Organization for Migration, UN’s Migration Agency in Geneva beginning August 2017.


[1] Giles, Lionel. 2001. Sun Tzu on the Art of War.

[2] Scott, Shirley V. 2016. “China’s Nine-Dash Line, International Law, and the Monroe Doctrine Analogy.” China Information 30 (3): 296–311.

[3] Zou, Keyuan. 1999. “The Chinese Traditional Maritime Boundary Line in the South China Sea and Its Legal Consequences for the Resolution of the Dispute over the Spratly Islands.” The International Journal of Marine and Costal Law 14 (1): 27–55.

[4] Kaplan, Robert. 2014. Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. New York: Random House.

[5] Jacques, Martin. 2012. When China Rules the World. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Group.

[6] Roy, Denny. 2013. Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security. New York: Columbia University Press.

[7] Wilson, Andrew. 2009. “The Maritime Transformation of Ming China.” In China Goes to Sea, edited by Andrew Erickson, Lyle Goldstein, and Carnes Lord, 238–87. China Maritime Studies Institute and The Naval Institute Press.

[8] Gray, Jack. 2002. Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to 2000. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press.

[9] Harding, Harry. 1993. “The Concept of ‘Greater China’: Themes, Variations and Reservations.” The China Quarterly 136 (December). Cambridge University Press.

[10] Callahan, William A. 2012. “Sino-Speak : Chinese Exceptionalism and the Politics of History.” The Journal of Asian Studies 71 (1): 33–55.

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 Feature image: Andy Wong / Associated Press 

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