China Is Playing Offense, Not Defense, in the South China Sea

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China Is Playing Offense, Not Defense, in the South China Sea

China’s actions in the South China Sea have gone far beyond matching or reacting to the actions of others.

China Is Playing Offense, Not Defense, in the South China Sea
Credit: Official U.S. Navy Page

The construction of artificial islands is the latest and most dramatically tangible example of what many observers call increased Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, where China is one of six governments that claim sovereignty over some of the same territory. A key question is whether Chinese assertiveness is the result of provocations by other countries. If so, these other countries should cease and desist if we want to de-escalate tensions in the region.

There are three theories of China’s approach to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The first is that Beijing is completely defensive: What the Chinese really want is to lay aside the sovereignty question and continue business as usual, perhaps including the joint exploitation of resources in contested areas. Chinese officials have often stated this as their aim. The exceptionally expansive claim Beijing makes to some (unspecified) form of ownership over most of the South China Sea might be explained as merely an initial bargaining position from which the Chinese would eventually retreat. This theory would explain assertive Chinese actions responses to unilateral steps taken by rival claimants. The implication is that China could abide the status quo, but cannot tolerate the risk of appearing to tacitly accept other claimants changing the status quo to China’s detriment. If others did not violate the truce first, neither would China.

The second theory is that China intends to increase its control over the disputed territory at the expense of other claimants and has pre-prepared policy actions for doing so, but fears appearing “aggressive.” Therefore Beijing waits for an action by an adversary government to provide an excuse for a premeditated and disproportionate retaliatory action that results in a permanent enhancement of China’s position. According to this theory, China’s desire for self-aggrandizement is balanced by its aversion to encouraging anti-China security cooperation among the other Asia-Pacific countries.

The third theory is that China is committed to realizing something close to its maximum claim in the South China Sea according to its own timetable. Since Beijing hopes to achieve its goal with a minimum of contention, its policy is to gradually strengthen its position over a period of many years, with the objective of forcing rival claimants to conclude that their best recourse is to submit to the Chinese demand for bilateral negotiations (which would inherently favor China, the much larger and stronger party). Under this theory, Beijing will follow its own plan to unilaterally change the status quo in China’s favor regardless of what the other claimants do, although it may speed up its game plan to ensure China stays ahead of policy moves by its rivals.

All of the South China Sea claimants agreed in 2002 to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC). They thereby pledged “to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” including a promise not to inhabit then-uninhabited rocks, reefs and shoals. The claimants as a group did a poor job of keeping this agreement. But according to the first and second theories, if the other claimants had lived up to the DoC agreement, China would have also. We would not be talking about five years of Chinese “assertiveness” in the South China Sea, nor about the current Chinese land reclamation, which by any reasonable interpretation flouts the DoC.

Some analysts take the view that acts such as the Philippine government challenging the validity of China’s “10-dashed line” in international court or the U.S. Navy sending patrols near China’s artificial islands are causing rather than deterring Chinese expansion.

This view is justifiable if we presume, in line with the first two theories, that Beijing’s South China Sea policy is merely defensive and reactive, and that resisting Chinese moves perpetuates tensions instead of letting them subside.

Changing the Status Quo

There are, however, several reasons to doubt this view. First, China’s position in the international system leads to the expectation that Beijing is striving not to preserve the status quo, but rather to change the status quo in China’s favor. China is a rising great power that sees itself as the natural leader of a region currently under what the Chinese believe is excessive, illegitimate, and declining U.S. influence. As any other great power would do where feasible, China is striving to establish a sphere of influence – a zone of territory around its borders over which the Chinese have a degree of control. The disputed islands and a map inherited from the Republic of China government give the Chinese Communist Party an excuse to claim ownership of the South China Sea, but the Chinese have also demanded respectful treatment in areas of the Yellow Sea and even in the vicinity of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands where Beijing does not claim sovereignty over maritime territory. The strong do what they will, whether or not there is a legal basis.

Second, China is now in the post-Deng era. Deng advised his successors not to take the lead in international affairs, to refrain from over-reacting to adverse events, and to avoid conflicts with the Western powers as much as possible. Fear of a regional backlash was a strong restraint on Chinese behavior. Now, however, China is relatively stronger and more confident. The previous worry about frightening other countries in the region seems to influence Chinese foreign policymakers less than an eagerness to establish China as the new regional leader.

Third, China’s policy increasingly looks like the oft-alleged “creeping expansionism.” None of the South China Sea claimants is innocent of unilateral activities that strengthen their own claims at the expense of others. Chinese actions, however, have gone so far beyond matching or reacting to the actions of others that the third theory above now seems the most plausible.

Finally, passivity in the face of Chinese advances may well increase, not decrease, the chances of an eventual military confrontation. If South China Sea littoral states would not accept Chinese domination of their maritime borders and the United States would not accept Chinese gatekeeping authority over areas now considered international sea and airspace, these countries should begin immediately to signal their resolute opposition to Chinese policies that may ultimately result in these unwanted outcomes. To delay would only convince the Chinese that no substantial opposition is forthcoming, and would allow the Chinese to further strengthen their position. If direct intervention to physically stop Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea is not possible, the United States and other Asia-Pacific governments can and should consider indirect means of raising the cost to China of its unwelcome activities.

Compared to its policy in the 1980s and 1990s, China is moving rapidly to strengthen its position in the South China Sea – not only through physical activities such as law enforcement patrols and the construction of artificial island bases on piles of sand, but also through diplomatic and legal argumentation. This acceleration of the Chinese drive toward settling the South China Sea issue on terms favorable to China partly reflects the Chinese sense in recent years that rival claimants have been rushing to stake their claims before China grows overwhelmingly strong. More importantly, however, China’s increased push reflects a changed foreign policy-making climate in Beijing. Since the Chinese Communist Party celebrates China’s new status as a great power, imposing China’s will on the near-abroad satisfies domestic expectations and also helps fulfill President Xi Jinping’s agenda of demonstrating Chinese “rejuvenation,” re-legitimizing the CCP in the eyes of the Chinese public, and providing political cover for difficult economic restructuring.

The interests of some Asia-Pacific governments would suffer if the South China Sea became a Chinese lake, either through lost access to maritime resources, reduced freedom of navigation, or a weakening of the U.S.-sponsored regional order. It is understandable that these governments should resist China’s apparent intentions. Resistance that raises the cost to China of unilateral expansionism has a chance of refocusing all the claimants on ceasing tension-raising activities and on seeking ways to cooperatively and peacefully share the South China Sea.

Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center.