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I was reading a presentation from Capt James Fanell (retired director of intelligence and information operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet) on China's Navy:

He made this statement which caught my attention.

Transcript: The Rise of China’s Navy: A Discussion with Capt. James Fanell
China built between – late 2011 and through 2015 seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. And three of those islands are the same size and dimensions, in terms of geography, as Pearl Harbor. One of them is the same dimension as the beltway that goes around Washington, D.C.

Given:

China says the sea is part of their historic territory, a claim refuted by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Western Intelligence experts asserted in 2011, China is after the natural resources in the South China Sea ( oil, natural gas, fish ).

Question:

Given we now understand that we badly underestimated the scale of China's militarization in the South China Sea and Navy, detailed above which seems like overkill to get natural resources; Is there a different strategic objective which they could be after by controlling that swath of ocean?

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    Thanks @Chipster, couldn't figure out how to get that link right. – user20338 Oct 25 '20 at 3:28
  • Why do you think that seems like overkill? Staking territorial claims and acquiring and protecting natural resources is a major reason why countries have militaries. Why do you think acquiring vast quantities of oil and gas wouldn’t justify a military buildup? – divibisan Oct 25 '20 at 4:05
  • @divibisan the size of the navy force (outpacing the greatest global fleet), the size of the island construction( able to host a fleet multiple times the size of that great fleet they already have), the risks they are taking offending their greatest trading partners not to mention greatest potential military advisories in the region; overshadow any resources gained. Therefore staking out the territory must be an intermediate step to something greater and not the end unto itself. – user20338 Oct 25 '20 at 4:32
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    This Question should be closed because "The primary purpose of this question appears to be to promote or discredit a specific political cause, group or politician." and because it is asking for opinions on a country's objectives, for which a fact-based Answer is usually impossible (barring something like a massive Wikileak of internal communications). – Keith McClary Oct 25 '20 at 17:56
  • @KeithMcClary I don't believe any political "side" is discredited by this question. I don't even believe one can claim a historic difference on US/China policy between the Democrats and Republicans, nor is their one presently that I know of. – user20338 Oct 26 '20 at 2:43
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There are 3+1 likely reasons China wants to mess around in the area:

  • There is a possibility of oil offshore. Brunei is vaguely in the neighborhood and struck gold in the past. That would have been a traditional reason. With the possibility of peak oil approaching, it's going to lessen.

  • It protects sea trade lanes, which are important to China, just as sea trade lanes are/were important to the US. A lot of the world trade (and a lot of oil) goes through the Malacca Straits.

  • Part of a First Island Chain defense vs the US. Thing is, they are also sitting ducks in military terms. Their position is known at all times and you can saturate them with cruise missiles and they are so small that only bunkers will survive. In equivalent sites: the US has no military presence on Midway anymore. And, they are not really on the direct approach from the US to China. Not to forget: global warming sea rises present long-term challenges.

Most likely:

China, or more exactly the CCP wants to throw its weight around. It can cow its neighbors into submission, establish dominance by putting up bases, provoke the US and play on national pride. Call it the equivalent of a bobcat pissing on a tree, Pooh Bear-style. Sorry, Xi-style. If really pushed, it can always withdraw and conjure up some extra nationalistic wounded pride.

Unlike say doing something nasty to Taiwan until it's really ready, losing face there is not an existential challenge to the ruling party.

Remember: the CCP may not hold elections, but it is highly sensitive to public sentiment. Conjuring up foreign enemies is a part of those calculations.

Neither is it a do-or-die area for the US. In other words, a trial balloon.

reason #5 (speculative):

China has, as you point out, a growing navy. But until now, it's more what one would call a brown-water navy than a blue-water navy. It can operate in the vicinity of China's coast, but is not an especially capable long-distance force-projection in the tradition of say the USN or the Royal Navy. Just like the Soviet Navy was a bit of an afterthought in the USSR lineup. Having the South China Sea to operate in, which it wouldn't have if had to rely on what are still mostly pro-Western coastal states, is like training wheels on a bicycle.

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    @ItalianPhilosoophers4Monica The one which makes the most sense to me is the one you stated which I did not. Seeking a "first Island chain" land grab. This would mean Taiwan's up next after the SCS is fortified. Possessing the SCS would Cut Taiwan off from the most direct route for any US relief force. Also cuts in half the area any US carriers could attack from, leaving them more vulnerable. Taiwan then becomes a stepping stone to Japan and S. Korea. Which completes the first island chain. Something big like that justifies the preparations we are seing. – user20338 Oct 25 '20 at 6:47
  • Taiwan is nowhere near the Spratleys & co. The nine-dash line doesn't have all that much to do with it - aside from Taiwan being on its extreme North East end - and especially not as an interdiction point USA->Taiwan route. Militarily? Doubtful gains. Politically is where it's at. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 25 '20 at 6:52
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    @ItalianPhilosoophers4Monica True but China doesn't need bases to threaten Taiwan. China's mainland is 70 miles away. What they need is to deny the US the ability to come to Taiwan's aid, and to limit the approach paths if the US does. SCS slows down any US relief and also reduces the angle any relief could come from – user20338 Oct 25 '20 at 6:54
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    Detail comment: A brown-water or green-water navy? I would think the latter? – o.m. Oct 25 '20 at 10:27
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    China's main submarine facilities are in Hainan. They need SCS to help secure their access to deep ocean undetected. – makelemonade Oct 25 '20 at 13:28
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The previous answers all have their own merits, but they (understandably) focus on how things look from outside.

The historic ownership claims (S.C.S. and Taiwan included), whether embellished or not, are now beliefs held by the majority of people in China, in much the same way that most U.S. citizens support Israel.

Xi Jinping is a traditionalist and a nationalist - and he buys into this narrative very strongly. The party members are incentivized to please him (in order to get promoted), and also the general public (in order to justify their stewardship of the country).

I would say this is the "main" reason. Militarization has strategic and economic benefits, but I tend to view them as a natural consequence of a powerfully held belief: China's "rightful" status as the dominant power in the region.

P.S. the logical consequence of this is that it is now practically unstoppable in our lifetimes. It is something that will continue with or without the C.C.P. and will eventually override any "promises" made with other states.

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  • Pretty much. I should have made the point more clearly that it is a lot about internal politics rather than even outward facing maneuverings. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 25 '20 at 19:03
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Italian Philosophers 4 Monica lists some excellent reasons. But probably the biggest reason is that China wants to take over Taiwan.

China simulates island invasion to rattle Taiwan.
ABC News -- Could China invade Taiwan
Xi Jinping threatens military force against Taiwan independence

Obviously, control of the South China Sea would be critical in any war over Taiwan.

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It is the United States, not China, that is militarizing the South China Sea.
The US military's provocative activities in unrelated waters can only increase the militarization of the region.
Regarding the construction of islands in the South China Sea, other countries have implemented it for many years, but it is only because of China's greater power that it can build them faster.
China is committed to peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea with ASEAN countries. It is the United States that wants to create conflicts in the region and distract China.

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    other countries have implemented it for many years citations, please. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 25 '20 at 19:14
  • Makes no sense. The US has no military installations in the SCS to support the claim it is militarizing it. Certainly non in 2015 either. As for the United States Navy, it has conducted freedom of navigation missions for 200 years. It goes everywhere International law permits and that includes the SCS. Reality is China is usurping international waters along with the territorial waters of its neighbors; branding China an aggressor and threat to the international order which it has greatly profited from. – user20338 Oct 26 '20 at 2:32
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica It is easy. policyforum.net/vietnam-south-china-seas-roiled-waters In fact, it is far more than that. In the 1970s and 1980s, when China did not have the power to protect its own rights and interests, the Western media would not care about these small islands. – cocoJ Oct 26 '20 at 6:44
  • @JMS The United States itself has not acceded to the International Convention on the Law of the Sea, it only safeguards its own interests. The South China Sea is a microcosm of the Sino-US confrontation, but in recent years it has become increasingly difficult for the United States to incite ASEAN countries to confront China. The so-called current international order is American hegemonism, and it will be replaced sooner or later. – cocoJ Oct 26 '20 at 6:48
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The main goal, for me, is covering Chinese shores from the potential naval strike. It's logical - if you have fortified islands, opponent's fleet should first battle through them, before reaching your shores.

US is constantly threatening China with naval maneuvers, so China is trying to do their best to make defences.

"Promised not to" => "exactly doing that" - breaking promises is common.

US promises prevent NATO expanding to the east, and where it is now? US left a deal with Iran just by their wish, without any provocation - also can be treated as promise break. It's real politics, and any words are just words.

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  • Which US promises on NATO are you talking about? Wasn't there only a German assurance (per Gorbachev's memoirs)? And isn't the Taiwan Strait considered international waters? – JJJ Oct 25 '20 at 16:37
  • This could also be compared to the blockade of Cuba and the Bay of Pigs invasion. Now that China reacts the same way as the US did to Cuba, the US is all concerned about freedom of navigation and national sovereignty. – Keith McClary Oct 26 '20 at 0:52

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