George Friedman says access to the world's oceans for trade is the key issue behind China's aggressive stance in the South & East China seas

George Friedman says access to the world's oceans for trade is the key issue behind China's aggressive stance in the South & East China seas

By George Friedman*

The Chinese have a strategic problem in the South and East China seas. China is obviously interested in what happens in these waters. There is much speculation as to why the level of interest is so high.   

The answer is simple: China wants to keep foreign powers away from its coast and away from waters vital to its global trade routes. 

China’s greatest threat in these waters is the United States. Given the size of the US Navy and the location of the islands off China’s coast, the US Navy is capable of blocking China's access to the ocean. This would deal a serious economic blow to China.

Countering this threat means building a navy that could challenge the US… a far from easy task. So, China’s actions in these seas are meant to intimidate regional countries away from American influence. The goal is to boost China’s ability to control shipping lanes. This calls for a show of strength

Access to trade routes tops resources 

Last week, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave a commencement speech at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and focused heavily on the Chinese threat. He said: 

China has taken some expansive and unprecedented actions in the South China Sea, pressing excessive maritime claims contrary to international law. Its construction - and subsequent militarization - of artificial islands on disputed features far surpass all other land reclamation efforts by other nations there, all other[s] combined. And when other aircraft, ships, and even fishermen act in accordance with international law near these features, China tries to some times to turn them away. 

The Chinese shot back by charging Carter with having a Cold War mindset. Rhetoric aside, Carter’s comments stress the weight of ongoing events and merit a closer look. 

There has been ample debate that China’s interest in the seas is linked to resources. Observers - notably those in the business sector - tend to believe that an economic motivation lurks behind every strategic move. Frequently, one does. 

In this case, tapping oil that might be in the seabed would be very costly. In light of the current and foreseeable market for oil, this is not a viable plan. Moreover, oil platforms at sea are highly vulnerable to air attack. Extraction costs and exposure risk would render oil drilling irrational. So, let’s look elsewhere. 

The real economic issue is that China’s coastal zone is hemmed in by large and small islands that stretch from the Strait of Malacca to Japan. These islands create fairly narrow passages, with many too shallow for deep draft vessels. The size of the US naval fleet means it could easily blockade China’s coast. 

China wants to erase this threat. Its moves are designed to intimidate countries on the perimeter of these two seas, from Japan to Indonesia. The logical path to achieve this goal would be for its navy to take control of key islands blocking China’s access to the global oceans. 

The problem is that China’s navy is not up to the task. There has been much talk about the surge of China’s naval power. However, this “surge” moves China’s capability from “very little” to “some.” China remains in no position to challenge the US, even in its coastal waters. 

Threat level of China’s naval power

The US Navy has an interest in presenting the Chinese as a serious threat. 

Since the Cold War’s end, the US Navy has faced few challenges, and the fleet has shrunk in response. The growing Chinese threat supports the US Navy’s call to increase its budget. So, the Navy will estimate the potential threat to be as large as possible. This is the normal procedure for government bodies within the Congressional budgeting process. 

The sense of dread about the Chinese navy stems from this dynamic. But the fact is, while China has built ships, it has not built a navy that is on par with the US. 

The core American naval fighting force is the carrier battle group (CBG). The US has 11 such strike groups. The Chinese have yet to float a domestic-built, operational aircraft carrier, let alone a CBG. 

China has ships: it does not have fleets. A fleet creates a single, integrated fighting force under a unified command. 

Fleet operations - and having the ships fight an integrated battle - are very complex. 

The key is to have experienced military leaders and well-trained staff. The needed experience is passed between generations of commanders, through tradition and doctrine. The Chinese have never had the sort of navy they are trying to build today. They can build ships, but creating an operational navy poses a big hurdle. 

A different kind of naval threat 

The Chinese have an alternative to a CBG and fleet operations: land and air-launched anti-ship missiles. The Chinese might be unable to engage in surface-submarine warfare. They can, however, use missiles to force the US fleet away from crucial islands. 

The Chinese have developed missiles with enough range to threaten a line extending from the Aleutian Islands to Guam to Australia. The strategy is to saturate US fleet anti-missile defenses using massive salvos of missiles. This would then clear the way for China’s navy. 

This strategy has two flaws. First, this would require a space-based survey on the location of US ships across a broad area. A great deal has been made about Chinese anti-satellite capabilities. Yet, I strongly suspect the US - which has been refining this problem since the 1970s - is way ahead of China on this. 

Second, China’s missiles are vulnerable. I would assume that US technical intelligence has mapped China’s launch sites and control facilities. The US would respond to the threat using air and missile attacks on Chinese launchers. This attack would not use nuclear weapons, but precision-guided munitions able to sufficiently diminish the Chinese threat thus allowing US fleet operations in the desired waters. 

What’s ahead for China 

China is in a difficult military position. Its best strategy is to convince countries like the Philippines that they are better off aligning with China than the US. To do this, it has made fairly feeble moves around key islands, dredging sand to make new islands, moving ships around, and flying close to American aircraft. 

None of these tactics are strong enough to change the balance of power in the waters around China. Ironically, they have drawn an increased American presence. China can make threatening gestures toward the US but can’t afford to mount a serious challenge. 

The precise capability of the Chinese navy is an open debate. But to engage the US in combat and suffer defeat - even in a small skirmish - would be among the worst outcomes for China. 

China’s strategy of inducing shifts in the alignment of countries around the South and East China seas requires a credible naval force. But China cannot predict how capable its navy will be in combat. 

The political fallout from failure would cascade globally, regionally, and within China. China is currently trying to hold things together in the face of domestic economic failures. Its emergence as a global power acts as a psychological brace for the regime. It cannot afford to lose that brace.

This explains why the Chinese can’t let go of the two seas issue, nor can they do anything decisive. Carter’s description of what is going on is fairly reasonable. But it does not amount to a serious military threat. 

China’s various minor actions have been magnified by the Chinese and the Americans for different reasons. Still, the fact is that China has been very cautious in a matter of fundamental importance to it: access to the world’s oceans. If it could have done something decisive, it would have. The risks and the realities at sea being what they are, China is likely to continue this strategy.


*George Friedman is editor of This Week in Geopolitics at Mauldin Economics. This article first appeared here and is used with permission.

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Mr Friednam plays down or misrepresents a crucial fact; China has an operational aircraft carrier, built from the Russian Varyag, and is in the process of building at least two more. They want a blue water navy which will enable them expanding their influence well beyond the South China sea. This article is very important for NZ as we, in today's geo-political interests sit in a quite strategic position that most don't know about, ignore, or play to China's interests and discount. We cover one of two closest points to the Antarctic continent, a resource rich environment where China has already established a military/scientific base, and we are in effective strike range of most of Australia's major east coast population centres. China's aspirations could have a significant impact on NZ's trading future.

Gosh, ya mean NZ could be the Cuba of the South Pacific?

Broker, buy me them cheap shares in BunkerMaker, stat!

Bet they have their eyes on Port Hardy, D'Urville Island where the Japanese were going to place their S. Pacific fleet in WWII. After they buy up Akld.

Not to worry. Very soon China will own NZ. Wait n watch. Now too also they control through back door as our politicians are too scared. Panama paper n housing bubble has been exposed but still no action as will not be in foreign interest and who cares about the interest of our country as it is, it is the last year to rule before being voted out and have to make their future secured after loosing the election.

The first stage of invasion is always colonization.

That is not true.

When Genghis Khan invaded he did not colonise first. When Hitler invaded Russia he did not colonise first. These are just two of a history of examples.

That's old style invasion today's new trend is a Corporate take over style.

Those who work in the IT sector will be very familiar which how that buying out a company works; A rival company will purchase a few shares may be 10% at first and gradually build on that until you have the controlling share of their host company.

And before you know it you have a new Boss, quite simple really.

But joking apart; quite a few of us quality migrants are now giving up on NZ and are looking to leave. Given the very obvious money laundering that's happening via Asia and the complete inaction of our Government to do anything about it. It's just too scary.

Where are you going to go?

Caracas? Lagos?

Still not decided, possibly back to Europe though depends on economic out comes. My other friends want to head back to the US and UK.

The first stage of invasion is sending scouts. Colonization is the final stage.

"Carter's description of what is going on is fairly reasonable." I don't think so. Carter is a war monger. The Chinese want to protect their "trade" . Their actions are defensive not aggressive. The americans pretend to protect the seaways for trade but it is really about controlling the worlds resources. An important cause of the Japanese entering WWII against America was the blockade of the energy supplies Japan needed, by the Americans. China will be well aware of this along with the drive to war in Washington because of the parlous state of the US economy. To quote someone "All wars are bankers wars" Earlier commenters would do well to ignore the spin coming from the mainstream media about Chinese and Russian aggression and focus on influencing the war mongering Americans and NATO. Look at the facts. Afghanistan, Vietnam, Syria,Libya, Iraq, and on and on. Where are the wars China and Russia have started? As for the Chinese owning NZ. If NZ wishes to maintain its sovereignty it should not sign up to the TPPA and it should work out how to handle a flood of immigrants from not just China but USA and Europe as the powers that be further destabilise the Northern Hemisphere in order to hide their debt ridden corrupt financial and banking system.
In fact China with its "New Silk Road" projects offers one of the few glimmers of hope for economic growth in the world.

You're touching on the fundamentals of the problem. America dominates and is effectively the neighbourhood bully, but with increasing power will China be any less of a threat? I also agree that the TPPA will further undermine any sovereignty we have left. As a small player, we'll just become collateral damage, and only the fact that we are a democracy with a free press offers us any glimmer of hope. Now how to get Journo's to get back to traditional press integrity?

Yes I agree that there is a concern regarding whether a powerful China would be a problem which is why a multipolar world is the best option. With the dismal state of the mainstream media which have become propaganda mouthpieces for Washington, and I include TV1, TV3 , Prime and National Radio it is more difficult to assess the rights and wrongs of world events. It is pretty damn clear however that the USA's management of the reserve currency and its overt and covert military adventures are creating a more dangerous unpleasant world as well as for their own citizens. It is sickening to see Obama mouth platitudes about ending nuclear weapons at Hiroshima while at the same time overseeing a trillion dollar upgrade to the US stockpile, pulling out of nuclear treaties with Russia, installing nuclear capable anti-missile missiles in Romania and refusing to accept North Korea's offer to halt it's nuclear program in return for stopping war games. All unquestioned by the media

NZ is isolated at the bottom of the world, cut off from the political and cultural West by Asian countries. The U.S is a natural ally. Then of course...
This story flew under the radar.