China likewise has security interests in its extensive South China Sea claims. As noted above, Beijing has reinterpreted international law to assert that it can deny access to its EEZ by foreign military vessels. Successful realization of China’s claims is the first step toward keeping foreign military assets out of those waters. There are three broad reasons why it wishes to do so.
Firstly, sovereignty over the South China Sea would grant China significant, additional strategic depth. At present, from China’s point of view, its coastal cities – key centers of economic activity – are vulnerable to attack from the sea. Keeping foreign warships and military aircraft distant from China’s shores would make it easier for the PLA to defend China’s southern coastline. It would also enable China to more easily project power close to its neighbors’ shores and thus threaten U.S. allies like the Philippines and friends such as Singapore and Indonesia.
Second, China is highly dependent on resource imports from the Middle East. In 2010, 47 percent of China’s oil imports came from the Middle East; 30 percent came from Africa[AJH2] . These imports pass through chokepoints that China doesn’t control, notably the Malacca Strait, but also the Lombok and Sunda Straits in Indonesian waters. Chinese defense officials have referred to this situation as the “Malacca dilemma.”
Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea would allow it to more easily project power into those straits and, on the flip side, make it more difficult for the United States to do so. This would make it more difficult for the United States to conduct operations in these vital waters against China, while making it easier for China to operate against the United States – and our allies Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. It would also enable the Chinese navy to more easily project power into the Indian Ocean, where American and Indian vessels have long operated unimpeded.
Third, Chinese control over the South China Sea would make it easier for the PLA Navy to project power into the Pacific Ocean. Such control would, in particular, make it more difficult for the United States to monitor Chinese submarines deploying from their underground base at Hainan Island. A Chinese Navy that can more easily sail into the Pacific is one that can more easily threaten U.S. assets and U.S. territories in the region.