Don’t Underestimate Xi Jinping’s Resolve in the South China Sea

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Tuesday morning local time, the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen entered the waters near one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. Within a few hours, this action sparked an enormously negative reaction in China. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense Ministry put out tough statements criticizing the move. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui summoned U.S. Ambassador Max Baucus to express China’s unhappiness. This series of actions is already approaching the most extreme levels of protest China’s foreign ministry has demonstrated toward other countries.

In fact, the response to the USS Lassen’s maneuvers from Chinese media and netizens alike is similar to the reactions after two of the worst crises in U.S.-China relations: the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the collision of a U.S. EP-3 plane with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet in 2001. There are three main views being expressed.

One view is that this action by the U.S. military is a serious provocation toward China. The perceived motive is that the United States will not admit to the fact of China’s island-building in the South China Sea, nor to the territorial requirements that could come with those projects.

The second view is that the U.S. wanted to humiliate China at a time when the PLA’s military deployments in the South China Sea are still not perfect. The perceived goal here is to demonstrate to Japan, the Philippines, and other U.S. allies in Asia that Washington can sufficiently control the local great power.

The third view holds that the U.S. FONOPs are actually a reaction to Washington meeting strong Russian resistance in Syria and other geopolitical hot spots. Because Moscow has “checked” the U.S. in the global chess match, the thinking goes, the U.S. military turned to the Asia-Pacific to flex its muscles.

There’s some truth to each of these explanations. What I take away from the immediate response by Beijing is that China absolutely does not want to see a conflict with U.S. forces in the South China Sea. That said, there’s an increased possibility that China will step up its preparations for conflict, as China is more wary than ever of the U.S. involvement in the South China Sea.

In particular, the fact that America conducted this operation so soon after Chinese President Xi Jinping finished his visit to the U.S. has causes Chinese media outlets that previously extolled the successes of the U.S.-China summit to lose face. Actually, Xi himself can be said to have lost face.

The U.S. cannot underestimate Xi’s (and the collective leadership’s) determination to safeguard China’s maritime rights. Otherwise, a miscalculation could lead to war, which would harm Washington’s most vital interests in the Asia-Pacific. To understand Xi, the U.S. must grasp a few essential points.

Xi Is a Princeling

There have been many detailed analyses of Xi’s governing style from Western media and scholars. Essentially, Xi is creating a “new normal” for Chinese politics as well as for China’s economy. This political “new normal” is designed to maximize government efficiency – and it necessarily means breaking the old rules. From personnel arrangements to leading small groups on economic reforms, Xi has a personal hand in everything.

Xi himself is the son of a former vice premier. His background as a “princeling” differentiates Xi not only from elected officials in the West, but also from China’s technocrat leaders. The biggest difference is the conflation of both the Party and the state as “family.” This sentiment makes Xi and other members of his group interpret any provocation toward China as direct opposition to the Party, and thus a threat to their families. As result, the princeling response to external challenges will be fierce. China’s approach to foreign relations in the Xi era has already given off this impression. Thus Xi is more likely than his predecessors to lead a strong response to the U.S. patrols.

China’s National Defense System Is Improving

Meanwhile, the tools at Xi’s disposal are growing. In the two years since Xi became the top leader, military reform has become a key word in China. Xi’s goals are clear and can be summarized in three points: the military must listen to Party commands, be able to win wars, and have a good work style. All of the recent changes and actions from the PLA, whether internal or external, involve these three goals — from the establishment of the National Security Commission in 2013 to the declaration of an air defense identification zone later that year. Even China’s island-building program in the South China Sea, as well as its patrols in the East China Sea, have clearly raised the PLA’s ability to react to contingencies and defend national security.

As Xi leads deep reforms in the Chinese military, increasing PLA capabilities, the possibility of China using force externally is rising. If the U.S. doesn’t pay attention to the military changes happening in China under Xi’s leadership, instead continuing to deal with China according to practices established over the last 10 years, there will be trouble. Especially if the U.S. continues its “old habit” of surveillance operations in China’s near seas, or even intentionally stirs up a crisis, the chance of a military conflict between China and the U.S. may be quite high.

There’s No Retreat for China in the South China Sea

Finally, the U.S. should be absolutely clear on one point: the South China Sea has already become one of China’s “core interests.” To put it another way, the South China Sea has joined Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet as areas where China cannot give up or give in.

So China’s development of the South China Sea will continue, despite U.S. dissatisfaction or interference. To China, this is a necessary part of becoming a maritime power after decades of economic development and strengthened national power – it’s a natural evolution, not something that can be halted. As the U.S. responds to China’s South China Sea policy, Washington must take into account that this change in China’s stance is part of a natural and even inevitable historical trend.

But China’s development of the South China Sea does not mean using force to change the status quo. That is why China’s new leaders have built islands rather than resorting to military means.

The ultimate goal of China’s actions to insure that China’s core interests are never again trampled upon by neighboring countries – particularly not under Xi’s rule. Even though many of the territories and reefs historically claimed by China are controlled by Southeast Asian nations who also claim sovereignty over these features, China has not used force to take back these features. China’s land reclamation and island-building in the South China Sea hasn’t led to the seizure of any features controlled by neighboring countries. Rather, the policy has only solidified China’s control over the features it already occupies, preventing them from being seized by others in the future. In that sense, the basic status quo has not changed.

China’s South China Sea policies are ultimately defensive, though the West doesn’t recognize that fact. However, a perceived threat to China’s sovereignty will necessarily spark a fierce response.

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