The Fight Inside China Over the South China Sea
Even Beijing isn’t sure what it wants. Small wonder regional tensions are flaring.
With a decision from an international ad hoc tribunal tasked with reviewing China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea looming, regional tensions are running high. A key problem is that no nation involved in the current round of tension -- not even China itself -- has a crystal-clear view of what exactly Beijing is trying to achieve in the South China Sea. That’s because three different schools of thought are each struggling for dominance in Chinese analytical and policy-making circles. A look at the debate within China helps explain the lack of effective communication and the rise of strategic distrust between China, Southeast Asian nations with competing claims, and the United States.
With a decision from an international ad hoc tribunal tasked with reviewing China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea looming, regional tensions are running high. A key problem is that no nation involved in the current round of tension — not even China itself — has a crystal-clear view of what exactly Beijing is trying to achieve in the South China Sea. That’s because three different schools of thought are each struggling for dominance in Chinese analytical and policy-making circles. A look at the debate within China helps explain the lack of effective communication and the rise of strategic distrust between China, Southeast Asian nations with competing claims, and the United States.
China’s leaders — from President Xi Jinping to Foreign Minister Wang Yi to military leaders like Admiral Sun Jianguo — repeat the well-worn lines that the South China Sea islands have always been Chinese territory, China’s actions are legitimate measures to safeguard its own sovereignty, China will not pursue expansive policies beyond legitimate territorial claims, and limited military installations on newly built islands are for defensive purposes. Some countries in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), however, find these explanations unconvincing, feel threatened by China’s island-building, and therefore want the United States to check Chinese power. Some U.S. officials have claimed that China is seeking “militarization” in the region, or even “hegemony.”
But in reality, it’s not at all clear that China itself really knows what it wants to achieve in the South China Sea. Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought among Chinese analysts about optimal policies toward the region: let’s call them realists, hardliners, and moderates. Chinese academic publications, media reports, and online opinions offer a glimpse into these different views. Since last year, I have also talked to a large number of Chinese scholars, government officials, and ordinary citizens. These three camps are representative of the diversity of Chinese views, although they are certainly not exhaustive of all the different views.
Because of the intensity of current tensions, Chinese analysts are under pressure to reflect vague government talking points, and sharp criticisms are rarely aired. This may explain why the outside world has commonly missed those debates. But in fact, China’s domestic debates about the South China Sea are of major importance for understanding the future directions of Chinese policy.
China’s realists believe that the fundamentals of China’s current South China Sea policy are sound, with no adjustment needed. They recognize the diplomatic and reputational costs incurred, but tend to slight them because they value China’s physical presence and material capability much more highly than its image abroad. Their belief is underpinned by a crude realist understanding of international politics: material power — and not ephemeral (and in any case un-measurable) factors such as reputation, image, or international law — is the decisive factor in international politics. They thus think time is on China’s side, as long as China can manage its rise. This kind of realpolitik thinking now dominates China’s South China Sea decision-making.
Realists think they are safeguarding China’s national interests by enhancing its material presence in the South China Sea. But they are uncertain about what to do with the newly constructed islands. Should Beijing push for a new round of military installations including placing offensive weapons systems, or are defensive equipments really sufficient for the status quo? Realists want power in the South China Sea, yet are unsure how much power is enough.
A second school of thought — the hardliners — provides alarming answers to the questions realists haven’t yet answered. Not only do they think China should present the seven new islands —constructed out of existing features, including Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef — as faits accompli to the outside world, but China should further expand its territorial and military reach in the South China Sea. Such expansion could include: building the islands into mini-bases, conquering some if not all of the features currently under other countries’ control, or turning the Nine-Dash Line map, first published in 1947 and which now serves as Beijing’s legal basis for its claims in the South China Sea, into a territorial demarcation line, thus claiming most of the South China Sea’s territorial waters for China. Hardliners have no regard for the concerns and anxieties of the outside world; they wish only to maximize China’s self-interest.
It is clear that some international media reports about China claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea are actually describing this, and only this, school of thought inside China. The good news is that this view does not yet dominate high-level decision-making. Hardliners within government are usually found in the military and law enforcement agencies. A maximalist policy toward the South China Sea would certainly serve their parochial bureaucratic interests. But hardliners also reside in the Chinese general public, the vast majority of which only has a superficial and impressionistic view of the South China Sea situation. Grassroots hardliner calls for assertiveness are based on emotional nationalism, not a studied consideration of China’s interests.
The difference between the hardliners and the realists is that, while the hardliners’ views are also based on realpolitik, there is an additional underpinning of hyper-nationalism, making accommodation with other countries especially difficult. Although the hardliners are not dominating current policy, the leadership cannot easily ignore or dismiss them for fear of stoking popular nationalism, a grassroots force which can easily spin out of control.
The third group, the moderates, believe it’s time for China to adjust its policy to clarify, if only gradually, its goals in the South China Sea. Moderates recognize that Beijing’s current ambiguity about its territorial claims and strategic design is feeding the outside world’s fear and distrust. They fault the government for failing to provide a compelling strategic narrative and promote effective communication with the outside world. China’s habitual just-do-it approach when it comes to major strategic decisions such as island building is actually harmful to its own self-interest. By forgoing any attempt to legitimize island-building, it ensures international suspicion of rather than sympathy for China’s actions.
Moderates argue that China needs to gradually clarify the Nine-Dash Line. Maintaining deliberate ambiguity would simply make the map a historical burden and an unnecessary obstacle to reaching diplomatic compromise. In their view, it is counterproductive to interpret the map as a territorial demarcation line, because doing so would make China an adversary of most Southeast Asian states as well as the United States. Were China to go down this path, they argue, it would eventually face the ominous danger of strategic over-stretch. The biggest problem for China, the moderates observe, is that it lacks a clear and effective strategy for the South China Sea.
The moderates differ much from the realists and the hardliners. But the three share an extremely important area of agreement: the necessity of island-building. During my extensive conversations with leading Chinese scholars and government officials since last year, I have not come across a single person who would say island building is a mistake. They may give different reasons for construction and offer different assessments of the consequences, but they all believe that this is something China must do, sooner or later. These reasons range from the more strategic to the more mundane; from establishing a strategic foothold in the South China Sea to providing better living conditions for Chinese personnel stationed there. But they all feel that given the current stage of China’s rise, Beijing must establish a presence in the South China Sea commensurate with its newfound power and status, especially since most other claimant states already have decades-old presences in the region.
Members of the international community have repeatedly criticized China’s island-building. But given the apparent national consensus inside China, and also given the fact that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not strictly proscribe building on existing maritime features, is it a good policy to keep targeting island building activities themselves? Wouldn’t it be in every nation’s interest to move on to the more strategic question of creating a new but stable regional status quo?
A new status quo demands China clarify its strategic intentions. Right now, not even the Chinese leadership has a clear answer to that question. Among the three schools analyzed above, only the extreme hardliners have a quick, but highly destabilizing, answer. The rest of China is debating what China’s strategy toward the South China Sea should be. This is an important fact. It suggests that China’s South China Sea policy has not hardened yet, and is thus malleable.
The international community — especially the United States and ASEAN — should create favorable conditions for shaping China’s policy toward a more conciliatory and cooperative direction. In particular, they should help raise the importance of the moderates in Chinese decision-making, turning them from a minority view to a majority consensus. The unfortunate effect of some of the rhetoric from U.S. officials about Chinese “hegemony” in East Asia is to confirm the hardliners’ view that the United States wants to contain China, thus undermining the moderates’ position within China’s domestic debate. Among the three schools discussed above, only hardliners unequivocally seek some sort of military hegemony. If American officials take this view as China’s national policy, they will simply talk past their more moderate Chinese interlocutors, creating a potentially dangerous communication gap between the two sides.
For its part, China needs to clarify its policy goals and reassure its neighbors, as well as the United States. A veteran Chinese diplomat recently told me that Chinese diplomacy is currently in its “adolescence.” But a rising China with regional and global responsibilities needs to learn quickly to become an adult.
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