China’s Great Game

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In the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, foreign powers asserted their will over China during what is known as the “century of humiliation.”[1] Famines, pandemics, mass murder, and widespread corruption hallmarked this era.[2] The Second Sino-Japanese war culminated in a particularly dark chapter for post-imperial China, when Japan, through its naval superiority, ravaged Chinese port cities and blockaded the country.[3] The birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 marked the end to the century of humiliation, however, the haunting memory of the past lingers in Beijing.[4] Contemporary Chinese foreign policy seeks to ensure national security by expanding China’s maritime strategy.[5] Historically a continental power, China viewed the sea as a potential invasion route for foreign aggression rather than as a medium to further its own goals.[6] Adapting to modern geopolitical realities necessitated a change in policy.[7] This discussion therefore seeks to briefly outline Chinese policy in the South China Sea and its conflict with international law and stability. 

 Hosting nearly a third of global trade, the South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.[8] Notably, some 40% of total Chinese trade and 90% of petroleum imports flow through the Sea.[9] The region is also militarily significant, as China deems it a buffer zone against American influence.[10]

China and its coastal neighbors signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS),[11] which generally determines maritime boundaries.[12] UNCLOS permits coastal states to assert sovereignty over two areas: (1) adjacent waters spanning a maximum of twelve nautical miles from their coastlines, including the coastline of offshore islands; and (2) Exclusive Economic Zones, extending some 200 nautical miles from the coast.[13] UNCLOS provides members with a dispute-resolution mechanism by permitting binding commercial arbitration.[14]

Despite UNCLOS’ provisions, Beijing militarized contested regions in the South China Sea[15] and claimed all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, totaling about 90% of the Sea.[16] Seeking to secure its influence, China built numerous artificial islands and occupied contested island chains in the Sea.[17] This comes in spite of military maneuvering by Western powers,[18] and China has not hesitated to send military vessels to contain other claimants from extracting natural resources in the Sea.[19]

While encroaching upon foreign sovereign territory, Chinese leaders feign legal legitimacy. Beijing relies on history to establish credibility, tracing Chinese activity in the South China Sea back to the Western Han Dynasty.6 UNCLOS, though, forbids making historical claims on territory.[20] In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration held that Chinese claims in the Sea held no basis under UNCLOS.[21] Nonetheless, Chinese aggression in the region remains undeterred by the Court’s decision.[22]

At stake is the stability of the World’s most populous region. Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea risks causing armed conflict in a critical economic artery—and armed confrontation risks disrupting international lines of communication and crucial supply chains.[23] China should adhere to the ruling of the Court of Arbitration by withdrawing its military presence and claims on foreign territory in the South China Sea or risk further escalating tensions with the West and undermining the international rule of law.

[1] Mark Tischler, China’s “Never Again” Mentality, The Diplomat (2020),

[2] Id.

[3] Evans Fordyce Carlson, Strategy of the Sino-Japanese War, 10 Far Eastern Survey 99-105 (1941).

[4] Tischler, supra note 1.

[5] Zhang Wei & Shazeda Ahmed, A General Review of the History of China’s Sea-Power Theory Development, 68 Naval War Coll. Rev. 4, Art. 8, 1, 6 (2015).

[6] Bernard D. Cole, The History of the Twenty-First-Century Chinese Navy, 67 Naval War Coll. Rev. 43, 43 (2014).

[7] Wei & Ahmed, supra note 5, at 6. 

[8] Marvin Ott, The South China Sea in Strategic Terms, Wilson Center (May 14, 2019)

[9] Id.

[10] Riyaz Ul Khaliq, ‘3’ Reasons China Tries to Control the South China Sea, Anadolu Agency (Feb. 25, 2021),

[11] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report (2016), 

[12] U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea § 2, Dec. 10, 1982, 1833 U.N.T.S. 397.

[13] Convention on the Law of the Sea, supra art. 56.

[14] Convention on the Law of the Sea, supra art. 188.

[15] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Staff Research Report, supra note 7.

[16] Oriana Skylar Mastro, How China is bending the Rules in the South China Sea, The Interpreter (Feb. 17, 2021),

[17] Karen Leigh & Peter Martin & Adrian Leung, Troubled Waters: Where the U.S. and China Could Clash in the South China Sea, Bloomberg (Dec. 17, 2020),

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Mastro, supra note 15.

[21] Christopher Mirasola, Recent Development, A Shifting Tide in the South China Sea: The Permanent Court of Arbitration Declares Jurisdiction, Harv. Int’l. L.J. Online (2015),

[22] Sakamoto Shigeki, The Global South China Sea Issue, The Diplomat (Jul. 4, 2021),

[23] Oriana Skylar Mastro, Military Confrontation in the South China Sea, Council on Foreign Relations (May 21, 2020),