Military-strategic Drivers of China’s Assertiveness in the SCS: Space and Naval Development

Speaker: Dr Sarah Kirchberger, Kiel University


In July 2016, China startled observers when it refused to accept a ruling by the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague that declared the Chinese ‘historic’ claim on land features in the South China Sea to be not in accord with international law. Vast Chinese land reclamation projects that began in 2013 in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and the subsequent militarization of these features, had drawn international criticism and raised alarm among other claimants. To explain China’s assertive behaviour, many recent analyses have focused on the historic, symbolic or economic meaning of the South China Sea to China’s overall strategy. This paper aims to explore some overlooked military-strategic factors and presents evidence for a coherent Chinese approach to establish comprehensive maritime domain awareness in a sea area that, due to several critical installations on Hainan Island, holds the key for China’s military modernization and nuclear deterrence strategy. Sarah Kirchberger is the Head of the Center for Asia-Pacific Strategy and Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University (ISPK). She is a former Assistant Professor for Contemporary China at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and during 2007-2010, served as a naval analyst with shipbuilder TKMS Blohm + Voss, where she was charged with analysing naval developments worldwide. Kirchberger completed her studies in Sinology, Political Science and Archaeology in Hamburg, Taipei, and Trier as a scholar of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation, and holds an MA (1999) and a PhD (2003) in Sinology from the University of Hamburg. She is the author of a book on Informal Institutions in Chinese and Taiwanese Politics (in German, PhD dissertation), and of the monograph Assessing China's Naval Power: Technological Innovation, Economic Constraints, and Strategic Implications (Springer 2015). Her current work focuses on China’s military modernization, especially naval and space development; Chinese-Russian and Chinese-Ukrainian military-technological cooperation; China’s defence industries; and on the impact of 4IR technologies on the future of sea power.