An expert's point of view on a current event.

China’s Military Moment

A window of opportunity is closing in the South China Sea. Will Beijing strike?

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Read more about the 5 flashpoints of the South China sea here. 

Read more about the 5 flashpoints of the South China sea here. 

Beguiled by undersea oil and gas deposits and the weakness of fellow claimants to the Paracel Islands, China launched a naval offensive to seize the disputed archipelago. To justify its actions, Beijing pointed to history — notably Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He’s visits to the islands in the 15th century — while touting its “indisputable sovereignty” over most of the South China Sea.

Chinese vessels carrying amphibious troops and operating under fighter cover from nearby Hainan Island engaged a South Vietnamese flotilla bereft of air support. One Vietnamese destroyer escort lay at the bottom of the South China Sea following the daylong battle. China’s flag fluttered over the islands.

The skirmish was real — and the date was Jan. 17, 1974.

History may not repeat itself exactly, but it sure rhymes. Back then, China exploited South Vietnamese weakness to seize the Paracels. Now, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has announced plans to station a military garrison at Sansha, a newly founded city on the 0.8 square-mile Woody Island in the Paracels. Formally established on July 24, Sansha will act as China’s administrative center for the Paracel and Spratly islands and adjoining waters.

This is the latest move in China’s campaign to consolidate its claim to all waters and islands within a “nine-dashed line” that encloses most of the South China Sea, including large swaths of Southeast Asian countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This month, a Chinese frigate ran aground in the Philippine EEZ after reportedly shooing away Filipino fishermen. That incident came on the heels of a late June announcement that PLA Navy units would commence “combat-ready patrols” of contested waters.

Beijing is reaching for its weapons once again. Unlike in 1974, however, Chinese leaders are doing so at a time when peacetime diplomacy seemingly offers them a good chance to prevail without fighting. I call it “small-stick diplomacy” — gunboat diplomacy with no overt display of gunboats.

Chinese strategists take an extraordinarily broad view of sea power — one that includes nonmilitary shipping. In 1974, propagandists portrayed the “Defensive War for the Paracels” (as the conflict is known in Chinese) as the triumph of a “people’s navy,” lavishly praising the fishermen who had acted as a naval auxiliary. Fishing fleets can go places and do things to which rivals must respond or surrender their claims by default. Unarmed ships from coast-guard-like agencies constitute the next level. And the PLA Navy fleet backed by shore-based tactical aircraft, missiles, missile-armed attack boats, and submarines represents the ultimate backstop.

Beijing can solidify its hold within the nine-dashed line by dispatching surveillance, fisheries, or law-enforcement ships to protect Chinese fishermen in disputed waters, stare down rival claimants, and uphold Chinese domestic law. And it can do so without overtly bullying weaker neighbors, giving extraregional powers a pretext to intervene, or squandering its international standing amid the anguish and sheer messiness of armed conflict. Why jettison a strategy that holds such promise?

Because small-stick diplomacy takes time. It involves creating facts on the ground — like Sansha — and convincing others it’s pointless to challenge those facts. Beijing has the motives, means, and opportunity to resolve the South China Sea disputes on its terms, but it may view the opportunity as a fleeting one. Rival claimants like Vietnam are arming. They may acquire military means sufficient to defy China’s threats, or at least drive up the costs to China of imposing its will. And Southeast Asians are seeking help from powerful outsiders like the United States. Although Washington takes no official stance on the maritime disputes, it is naturally sympathetic to countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Some, like the Philippines, are treaty allies, while successive U.S. administrations have courted friendly ties with Vietnam.

Chinese leaders thus may believe they must act now or forever lose the opportunity to cement their control of virtually the entire South China Sea. More direct methods may look like the least bad course of action — whatever the costs, hazards, and diplomatic blowback they may entail in the short run.

China’s motives have remained remarkably constant over the decades. Indeed, the map on which the nine-dashed line is inscribed is an artifact from the 1940s, not something dreamed up in recent years. Chiang Kai-shek’s government published it before fleeing to Taiwan, and the Chinese communist regime embraced it.

Now as then, the map visually expresses China’s interests and aspirations. Oil and natural gas deposits thought to lie in the seabed obsessed maritime proponents — most notably Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s economic reform and opening project. Fuel and other raw materials remain crucial to China’s national development project three decades after Deng launched it.

The motive of averting superpower encirclement has also influenced Chinese strategy. By the late 1970s, Deng had come to believe that the Soviet Union was pursuing a “dumbbell strategy” designed to entrench the Soviet navy as the dominant force in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. The Strait of Malacca was the bar connecting the two theaters. To join them, Moscow had negotiated basing rights in united Vietnam, at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang. Beijing believed it had to forestall a Soviet-Vietnamese alliance. Indeed, the PLA undertook a cross-border assault into Vietnam in 1979 in large part to discredit Moscow as Hanoi’s defender.

Beijing may view the 2007 U.S. maritime strategy — the official U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard statement on how the sea services see the strategic environment and intend to manage it — as a throwback to Moscow’s dumbbell strategy, predicated as it is on preserving and extending American primacy in the Western Pacific and the greater Indian Ocean. Chinese strategists fret continually about American encirclement, especially as the United States “pivots” to Asia. For China, it seems, everything old is new again.

Nor should we overlook honor as a motive animating Beijing’s actions. Recouping China’s honor and dignity after a “century of humiliation” at the hands of seaborne conquerors was a prime mover for Chinese actions in 1974 and 1979. It remains so today. The China seas constitute part of what the Chinese regard as their country’s historical periphery. China must make itself preeminent in these expanses.

Expectations are sky-high among the Chinese populace. Having regularly described their maritime territorial claims as a matter of indisputable sovereignty, having staked their own and the country’s reputation on wresting away control of contested expanses, and having roused popular sentiment with visions of seafaring grandeur, Chinese leaders will walk back their claims at their peril. They must deliver — one way or another.

And they have the means to do so. China has amassed overpowering naval and military superiority over any individual Southeast Asian competitor. The Philippines possesses no air force to speak of, while retired U.S. Coast Guard cutters are its strongest combatant ships. Vietnam, by contrast, shares a border with China and fields a formidable army. Last year, Hanoi announced plans to buttress its naval might by purchasing six Russian-built Kilo­-class diesel submarines armed with wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. A Kilo squadron will supply Vietnam’s navy a potent “sea-denial” option. But Russia has not yet delivered the subs, meaning that Hanoi can mount only feeble resistance to any Chinese naval offensive. That’s still more reason for China to lock in its gains now, before Southeast Asian rivals start pushing back effectively.

So a window of opportunity remains open for Beijing — for now. Chinese diplomacy recently thwarted efforts to rally ASEAN behind a “code of conduct” in the South China Sea. Washington has announced plans to “rebalance” the U.S. Navy, shifting about 60 percent of fleet assets to the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. But the rebalancing is a modest affair. More than half of the U.S. Navy is already in the theater, and the rebalancing will take place in slow motion, spanning the next eight years.

Nor will the four-vessel U.S. littoral combat ship flotilla destined for Singapore (the first one is scheduled to arrive next spring) right the balance in Southeast Asia. These are not vessels designed to do battle against the likes of the PLA Navy. But having established the principle that most of the U.S. Navy should call the Pacific and Asia home, Washington can always speed up the rebalancing process, shift more forces, and even negotiate base access in or around Southeast Asia. Beijing knows that.

Beijing may have concluded that patient diplomacy will forfeit its destiny in the South China Sea. In Chinese eyes, it’s better to act now — and preempt the competition. The lesson of 1974: Timing is everything.

James R. Holmes is the J.C. Wylie chair of maritime strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and co-author of Red Star Over the Pacific: China's Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy. The views voiced here are his alone.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.