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Why does China care so much about the South China Sea? Here are 5 reasons.

- July 13, 2016

On Tuesday, an international tribunal hearing a case on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea issued a decision overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines. Among other issues, it ruled that China had no legal basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the SEA (UNCLOS) to claim historic rights to resources within the nine-dashed line (see map below).

By last week, China’s public opposition to the tribunal had reached a fever pitch. Official state and party media denounced the tribunal as “illegal.” Chinese ambassadors around the globe wrote opinion pieces opposing the tribunal in local newspapers. China even tried to rally dozens of countries to openly support its view.

China’s effort to delegitimize the tribunal before the ruling reflects the importance that Beijing attaches to its claims in the South China Sea – especially its claims to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands (even though they lie beyond the scope of the tribunal).

China has settled land disputes, but not those at sea.

Just why China remains so intensely committed to its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea is puzzling. Since 1949, China has engaged in 23 territorial disputes with its neighbors. My research shows how China settled 17 of these disputes. And in 15 of these settlements, all of which concerned conflicts on China’s long land border, Beijing offered substantial compromises on the allocation of disputed territory.

Not so on disputes over offshore islands, however. China has taken an uncompromising approach to its territorial disputes at sea, such as the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Why is China so inflexible in territorial disputes at sea but willing to compromise so readily on land? Here are five reasons:

1) Islands are much more strategically valuable.

Most of China’s contested land borders were remote areas with few people, natural resources or clear military utility. By contrast, China views offshore islands such as the Spratlys as strategic. From these islands, China can claim jurisdiction over adjacent waters that might contain significant natural resources and even jurisdiction over some activities of foreign naval vessels.

As China’s recent land reclamation efforts suggest, the South China Sea outcrops can also be developed into forward outposts for projecting military power. Such outposts might be a necessary to defend China’s southern flank in the case of military conflict with Taiwan. They might also aid China’s submarine force by preventing other states from tracking Chinese submarines that seek to enter the Western Pacific from the South China Sea.

2) China’s position in the Spratly Islands dispute has been historically weak.

In most of its land border compromises, China physically controlled at least some of the territory that was contested. As a state with a large standing army, it could also project military power over the entire disputed area. But China historically held a weak position in the South China Sea disputes. Although the People’s Republic has claimed the Spratlys since 1951, for example, there was no actual Chinese physical presence until 1988.

Even today, China controls only seven of the roughly 43 land features of the Spratly Islands now occupied by all claimants. Even with its land reclamation efforts, China has been unable to project power over all these land features, the majority of which are several hundred nautical miles from China. Moreover, the South China Sea is vast, comprising 3.5 million square kilometers, a body of water that would be challenging for any navy to control.

3) Groups within China get a boost from defending claims to offshore islands.

The Chinese Navy used the occupation of six Spratly Islands outcrops in 1988 to extoll its role in the country’s national defense, significantly prompting an increase in “maritime consciousness” or awareness of China’s maritime claims and disputes. Since then, it has pressed for a more robust defense of China’s claims. Likewise, the State Oceanic Administration, the China National Offshore Oil Company and Hainan provincial government have used China’s strengthening and defending China’s claims as rationales for expanding the activities and budgets of their organizations.

4) At sea, no historical treaties allocating the sovereignty of islands exist.

Even the language Chinese officials use to support these maritime claims has been exceptionally strong and strident. Since 1956 – for 60 years – Chinese statements have referred to “indisputable sovereignty” (wuke zhengyi zhuquan) over the Spratly and Paracel Islands. By contrast, China has never used such absolutist language to describe the many land border conflicts.

One reason for such language might be the absence of past maritime agreements in East Asia. In contrast, parts of China’s land borders were formed by Qing Dynasty treaties signed in the 1800s – what China often describes as “the century of national humiliation.” But the rough delimitations in these treaties formed the outline of China’s land borders after 1949, and China did not challenge these agreements themselves. Whatever constraints the Qing-era treaties placed on China’s territorial ambitions on land are absent at sea.

5) China’s leaders have less room to maneuver in all territorial disputes.

Now that China is an economic powerhouse, many citizens expect to see a stronger China in general – on land and at sea. Chinese leaders have stoked these nationalist expectations, such as Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” Thanks to the rise in Internet use and social media, the Chinese public knows far more about the country’s foreign relations – and its disputes. When China was settling land border disputes in the early 1960s and early- to mid-1990s, the leadership could operate largely out of public view, and the Chinese people simply did not know what compromises were being made.

Laksmana - Nine dash line map_state dept
The disputed areas within the South China and Philippine Seas. This map, taken from a 2014 State Department study, shows Beijing’s claims by comparing the two versions (1947 and 2009) of the “nine-dashed line map” of the South China Sea. The study also notes that the 2009 dashed lines (in red) appear to be drawn closer to the surrounding coastal states than the 1947 lines, shown in green.

In the past two decades, however, China has witnessed dramatic changes in its media environment and a spike in knowledge and understanding about China’s disputes over islands such as the Spratlys. Although still under government control, China’s traditional and especially online media is much more open than at any time in the country’s history.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese public knows much more about its country’s foreign relations and disputes, which probably limits the leadership’s freedom to maneuver in the South China Sea. Many in China think that smaller claimants exploited China’s past weakness to occupy the majority of the features in the Spratly Islands, for instance.

So China’s claims in the South China Sea have become intertwined with the politics of the country’s global rise and broader maritime ambitions. Although China gained full control of the Paracels after a clash with South Vietnam in 1974, it did not establish a physical presence in the Spratlys until 1988. Even then, it could only occupy the smallest insular features that others had not even bothered to occupy, including rocks and some reefs that are submerged at high tide.

But these few holdings, which have been transformed into large artificial islands, are important. Now that China is stronger, many citizens believe it needs an unchallenged presence in the South China Sea that reflects its perceived status and capabilities.

China’s reaction to the ruling shows that it has no intention of backing down. At the same time that the tribunal issued its ruling Tuesday, Beijing issued a rare government statement. Reflecting the discussion above, the statement emphasized the basis of China’s claims to sovereignty over the Spratly Islands and other island groups in the South China Sea.

M. Taylor Fravel is an associate professor of political science at MIT and the author of “Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China’s Territorial Disputes.” He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.