In recent months, China’s ongoing island-building activities have raised some understandable concerns and worries among other Asian nations, evidenced by many recent reports (here, here, and here). The main worry, raised by the U.S. and several smaller nations in Asia, is that such islands, when completed, could significantly strengthen China’s military presence in the South China Sea, thus giving China a big advantage in its attempt to dominate the whole South China Sea.
China offered more detailed logic for why it is pursuing these land reclamation activities on April 9, 2015. Among the many benefits of such land reclamation works, they protect China’s national sovereignty, advance marine science and research, and protect other international public goods. More importantly, what China is doing now is no different from other countries like Vietnam’s past reclamation works. Of course, China is doing it differently in terms of speed and scale, but this is because China happens to possess the resources, manpower, and technology necessary for the job. Other countries, if they had similar resources, would do just the same. In this sense, outside critics misplace their complaints by focusing on the activities themselves.
A more reasonable worry is about the purpose of such activities, especially about their potential military purpose and applications. It would be disingenuous for China to claim that such islands have no military implications; indeed, China already admitted that in the future the islands could be used to safeguard China’s national sovereignty. And there is nothing wrong with using military force to protect one country’s national sovereignty when it is attacked by other nations. So in this sense, outsiders cannot criticize China either.
The real key question is: what do such island-building activities reveal about China’s possible offensive intentions toward its Asian neighbors and the United States? Will these islands embolden China in the future, such that it would seriously think about using military force to grab islands and reefs currently controlled by nations like Vietnam and the Philippines? To answer these questions, we should look at China’s island-building activities from a larger perspective instead of merely treating them as a separate element outside of China’s overall foreign policy and grand strategy. After all, island-building is just one small part of China’s overall approach to international affairs and, as such, outside analysts should not miss the forest for the trees.
Does China harbor offensive intentions toward other countries? The answer is no. Two main reasons support this answer. First, it is unwise and even stupid for China to go around conquering other smaller nations like it is still the 19th century. In today’s globalized world, the benefits of war have significantly decreased as countries find better and more effective ways, such as trade and investment, to enhance their national power. The United States is the best example. In the last 14 years, the U.S. has fought two very costly and yet unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan despite reaping limited strategic benefits from its military undertakings. This is mainly why the U.S. has relatively declined compared to other rising powers. If the world’s only superpower cannot benefit from wars, why should China, still a rising power, get into military adventures and misadventures abroad?
A second reason has to do with China’s own domestic problems. China is still a huge developing country, no matter how amazing its past growth has been. Although David Shambaugh was wrong in predicting a coming Chinese collapse, he did point out many serious problems facing China internally over the next two or three decades. It is not hard to conclude that even by 2050 China would not be the most advanced country in the world. While it is true that China’s foreign policy has become more active in recent years, all indicators point to the conclusion that Chinese leaders will not risk the country’s domestic developmental trajectory for limited foreign policy victories.
Thus, regarding China’s recent island-building, we need to keep in mind what China’s overall foreign policy objectives are. It still is focused on its peaceful rise, its peaceful development, and realizing the “China dream,” or whatever term you like to use for Xi Jinping’s vision. To neglect this big picture and focus solely on some small islands would only lead to threat inflation and overreaction, which often are sources of unnecessary conflict. China’s recent explanation of its activities is a positive sign that Chinese leaders understand such dangers. The outside world should welcome this.