Second, Xi said in his speech that China must “plan as a whole the two overall situations of maintaining stability and safeguarding rights” (yao tongchou weiwen he weiyuan liangge daju), the first time such a phrase has been used by a top leader. This seemed to give equal importance to maintaining regional stability (weiwen) and safeguarding China’s “maritime rights and interests” (weiquan).
In past speeches by China’s top leaders, a reference to the “overall situation” (daju) typically described a primary national interest that Beijing should not allow to be harmed or undermined by specific state policies. In the 1990s, for example, speeches on military modernization asserted that increases in defense spending must be coordinated with the overall progress of economic reform – that is, spending should not increase at the expense of broader goals. More recently, in 2006, during a major speech on Chinese diplomacy, then-President Hu Jintao referred to the equal importance of managing the domestic and international overall situations (guonei, guowai, liangge daju). As Bonnie Glaser from the Center for International and Strategic Studies observed then, Hu’s statement reflected the judgment that Beijing’s domestic policy of urging enterprises to invest abroad had backfired by harming China’s image in the world.
In his speech to the Politburo, Xi thus highlighted the contradiction between China’s enhanced efforts to defend its claimed maritime rights and its desire for regional stability. This matters for several reasons. First, it represents a recognition that Beijing’s maritime assertiveness has harmed its other interests, especially the role of other states in regional security affairs. Since 2010, for example, the United States has clarified its policy in the South China Sea, while deepening its alliance with Japan and underscoring its commitment to defend the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (which Japan administers) under Article V of their mutual defense treaty. Tokyo meanwhile has pursued greater maritime and security cooperation with Hanoi and Manila, among others, including by providing patrol boats.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Second, the stress on the need to balance these competing interests suggests limits to how either will be pursued going forward. On the one hand, China will not rule out reacting to perceived challenges simply to maintain regional stability. On the other hand, China’s defense of its maritime claims will also face hard constraints, lest they further worsen its position in the region. How these interests will be balanced may become apparent as a newly formed Chinese Coast Guard under a reorganized State Oceanic Administration shows how it plans to behave.
In sum, Xi’s remarks to the Politburo deserve special attention. They indicate China may not be as impatient about resolving the South China Sea disputes as some analysts have suggested. And they indicate China’s approach to these disputes may be more nuanced than expected by those who have labeled him as little more than a nationalist hardliner.
M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.