Why China Can’t Change Course in the South China Sea

According to China’s foreign minister, concessions in the South China Sea would embarrass China’s ancestors.

Why China Can’t Change Course in the South China Sea
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Department of State

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, made a particularly interesting set of remarks recently on why China cannot recalibrate its approach to the disputed South China Sea. As Diplomat readers may recall, China has steadily raised the stakes in the South China Sea by constructing man-made islands and building a range of civilian and military structures on these islands. China’s approach to the South China Sea, according to Wang, cannot be rolled back — not due to any realist considerations on Beijing’s part, but because China “would not be able to face [its] forefathers and ancestors.”

Wang made the remarks speaking specifically about China’s claims to the disputed Spratly Islands (known as the Nansha Islands in China): “One thousand years ago China was a large sea-faring nation. So of course China was the first country to discover, use and administer the Nansha Islands,” Wang noted. “China’s demands of sovereignty over the Nansha Islands have not expanded and neither will they shrink. Otherwise we would not be able to face our forefathers and ancestors,” he continued, particularly if “the gradual and incremental invasion of China’s sovereignty and encroachment on China’s interests” was allowed to continue.

The foreign minister’s remarks were the closest thing to a “why” we’ve heard from senior Chinese leaders for their actions in the South China Sea in recent months. International scrutiny over China’s island-building has done little to elicit a reaction from China. As Peter Dutton has written, China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea remains “unambiguously ambiguous,” and its reasons for “maintenance and construction” work, as the foreign ministry puts it, are unconvincing.

Wang’s remarks (if we take them at face value) will serve as a delightful piece of evidence of culture driving foreign policy. Indeed, where realist explanations for China’s behavior in the South China Sea may be unsatisfactory, constructivist scholars have long stressed the salience of Confucian thought and a sense of historical malignment in driving China’s foreign policy behavior. Hearing the Chinese foreign minister evoke the collective ancestry of the Chinese people as a justification of sorts for China’s ongoing assertive behavior is a powerful testament to that idea (even if it may be window-dressing for broader realist motivations; after all, China’s ancestors could care less about South China Sea hydrocarbon reserves and the utility of parking submarines in the deep waters in and around the Spratlys).

What is worrisome about Wang’s remarks is that they suggest that rational bargaining or diplomacy may prove ineffective in deterring China’s behavior in the South China Sea. If Beijing’s perception of the stakes at hand is so closely tied to its national identity and self-perception as a rising great power, the only tolerable outcome for China is one where it “wins” — without conceding an inch to the other claimant states in the region.