Three charts to show why the South and East China Seas matter
Japan does not officially have an army, it has a Self Defence Force. So, when it starts sending warships into the South China Seas in an attempt to keep China’s territorial claims in check, it is clear there is a problem. Its Izumo helicopter carrier’s presence is to provide the assurance to the region that it is willing to move into a more proactive military role in the interests of regional security at a time when US interest is at best only focused on North Korea, and at worst, waning. While the US nominally retains its commitment to the “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (Fonops) to provide a base for regional security, its military operations are taking a lower key and not being publicised as they were under the Obama regime. As the US appears to look away, China continues to build and protect what it deems its sovereign and economic rights. China can play a long game without using its military muscle, but the very fact that it is demonstrating its regional influence reinforces the perception that tensions in the region are dangerous.
The region matters to world trade flows and to its energy security. The importance of the South and East China Seas cannot be understated. It is not just a source of geopolitical tension, it is also a major trading route. The countries in the region’s US$ 10.7tn trade accounted for just over 54% of world trade in 2016. More than this, the countries in the South and East China seas account for just over 40% of world oil trade (Figure 1). Any risk of disruption or threat of instability should make markets and commentators alike feel nervous as a result, not just because of the spill-over effects into the global trade system but also because of the region’s strategic importance.
Figure 1: Share of world oil trade for countries in the South and East China Seas area 2016
Source: Equant Analytics 2017
The region matters to China as well. Trade with the other countries in the South China Seas account for some 51% of China’s trade (Figure 2)
Figure 2: China’s trade with nations and Hong Kong in the South and East China Seas
Source: Equant Analytics, 2017
Hong Kong is China’s biggest trading partner in the region at more than twice the value of trade compared with Japan, its second largest trading partner. The regional partners, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam in particular, are important contributors to regional supply chains in electronics and machinery & components meaning that their regional fortunes are intertwined. As China has gone through its economic reform programme of the past few years, it is these regional partners who have had to adjust. But any political instability in the region threatens trade flows within the region as well as between the region and the rest of the world. This impacts China just as much as it does other countries and as a result, China will be keen to ensure that there is no escalation of tensions beyond rhetorical ones simply because it is in its own strategic interest.
China’s strategic interest is evident in the East China Seas through its relationship with North Korea. As sanctions have become more stringent, China’s share of North Korean trade has increased (Figure 3). The momentum projections suggest that this may well stabilise over the next few years but at over 85% of North Korea’s trade, China has a strong strategic leverage over Pyongyang.
Figure 3: Percentage share of North Korea’s trade accounted for by China (1996 – 2021)
Source: Equant Analytics, 2017
The US and China have engaged in talks since their Summit in April, not overtly about North Korea – but about trade. Why? President Trump explained this in a tweet on the 11th April: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the US will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” In other words, trade is a strategic tool to gain influence over North Korea. An explicit “trade war” between the two countries was avoided because of the post Summit “100 day plan” and although the deals struck since then have been modest, they have the effect of diverting global attention away from the region.
The perception of geopolitical risk in the South and East China Seas is not new. In the South China Seas the disputes are territorial and between countries; the role of the US has been to keep the trade route that it represents open in the economic strategic interests of the world. The risks in the East China Seas and Korean Peninsular are as much about strategic influence as they are about trade.
However, a deliberate armed conflict is unlikely as the example of North Korea and the “trade deals” with China show. It is simply too important to the US and the world, in terms of energy security, in terms of trade flows, in terms of economic interests and more generally in terms of national interest and power. Increasingly, the disputes in the region are centred around strategic influence. Trade, or the threat of disruption to trade is the means by which any conflict will be fought: it is a bargaining chip. China knows this and holds increasingly more of the cards as the US looks away.