What does China really want in the South China Sea?

by Bill Hayton / 29 March 2017 / Asia.nikkei.com

The question of what China actually wants in the South China Sea is surprisingly little studied in the West. Too many international analysts seem happy to make assumptions about China’s strategic and tactical motivations without reference to Chinese statements or documents.

A preoccupation among U.S. strategists, in particular, about freedom of navigation, the safety of allies and the maintenance of a rules-based order dominates most English-language writing about the dispute. Too often they project the same motivations onto the “other” and interpret Chinese actions accordingly.

The few available official Chinese documents paint a different picture. China’s white paper on military strategy released in May 2015 identified the major threats facing China as “hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism,” and stated that the military’s top priority is “to safeguard [China’s] national unification, territorial integrity and development interests.”
While the U.S. analysts are focused on access through the South China Sea as part of the “global commons,” the Chinese focus is on defending the South China Sea as part of China’s inherent territory. My research casts serious doubt on this historical narrative but Western analysts need to take it much more seriously if they are to understand what is driving the disputes there.

Although the opacity of China’s political process makes it difficult to assess how the country’s leadership “really” regards the South China Sea, official documents and statements do provide some insights. As Ryan Martinson of the U.S. Naval War College has observed, in June 2014 Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that China must place the highest priority on building “an impregnable wall for border and ocean defense.”

Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has noted that Xi has repeatedly focused on “the need to firmly uphold China’s territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests and national unity, and properly handle territorial and island disputes.”

The admiral’s list

In his 2004 memoirs, Adm. Liu Huaqing, regarded as the father of the modern Chinese navy, listed six maritime objectives in his strategy of “near-seas active defense,” including reunifying Taiwan with the mainland; the return of lost and disputed maritime territory; defending national maritime resources; securing China’s strategic lines of communication; precluding or defeating decisively any seaborne attack by foreigners; and building sufficient strategic nuclear deterrence.

What seems most significant is that the first three goals concern the “returning” of territory and resources to national control. This is testament to the Chinese leadership’s enduring obsession with ending the country’s “national humiliation.”

Despite this, international analysis of Chinese actions in the South China Sea has concentrated too much on the last three goals — the classic subjects of traditional naval studies and international relations — and not enough on the first half. Such analysis fails to understand the key motivations driving Chinese policy. Read more…

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