August 13, 2012

Politics in Play in the South China Sea

While the potential reserves of oil and natural gas are important drivers of Beijing’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea, access to the sea's energy resources is not the only issue behind China’s outsized claim to the area. According to a Sunday report in The New York Times, China's upcoming leadership transition may also be shaping Beijing’s behavior in the region.

The leadership in Beijing appears to have fastened on to the South China Sea as a way of showing its domestic audience that China is now a regional power, able to get its way in an area it has long considered rightfully its own,” The New York Times reported. “Some analysts view the stepped-up actions as a diversion from the coming once-a-decade leadership transition, letting the government show strength at a potentially vulnerable moment.”

Of course, Beijing’s concerns about domestic politics and access to energy resources are not mutually exclusive. After all, China’s interest in the potential oil and natural gas in the South China Sea is in part driven by concerns over its vulnerability elsewhere, particularly the Strait of Malacca, through which up to 80 percent of China’s Persian Gulf and African oil imports travels. A closure of the strait could have an immediate impact on the Chinese economy and domestic stability.  “[I]f the Malacca Strait were closed for just one day, the disruption in energy supplies might cause social unrest in China, according to a well-placed officer of the People’s Liberation Army,” wrote Patrick M. Cronin and Robert D. Kaplan in a January 2012 CNAS study, Cooperation from Strength: The United States, China and the South China Sea.

As a result, despite the uncertainty over how much oil and natural gas actually lays beneath the South China Sea, policymakers in Beijing appear to be making a bet that those energy resources could provide some strategic relief from its energy problems elsewhere.

As China prepares for its political transition, top Chinese officials may adopt more hard-line policies with respect to the South China Sea. As The New York Times reported, “The sustained attention to the South China Sea has been almost certainly coordinated from the senior ranks of the central government,” which suggests that Beijing’s attention to the South China Sea may only intensify in the months ahead.

Photo: The Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Courtesy of flickr user thewamphyri.