The Buzz

South China Sea: Beijing’s Strategic Culture is Shaped by History

While armed conflicts still rage in Syria, Iraq, and other troubled spots of the world, a major conflagration of epic proportions that may involve some of the world’s most powerful sovereign powers, including the United States, China, Japan, and even Russia, is brewing in earnest in the South China Sea. At the center of this conflict is China’s extravagant maritime and territorial claims for almost the entire South China Sea, riling most countries in the region, upsetting key stakeholders along the world’s busiest commercial shipping lanes, and challenging key international maritime laws and interpretative frames of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Yet, China’s actions of late in the South China Sea should not be viewed as simply a reflection of the normal rise and fall of nations animated by proverbial fears and self-interest. They follow an inexorable logic of Chinese history, and are deeply rooted in China’s long-standing strategic culture, the key elements of which are as follows:

In China’s long history, unlike in the rest of the world, there has never been a willing acceptance of sovereign equality among nations, big and small. At the core of China’s strategic culture lies a Sino-centrism, which places China at the most pivotal spot of the world with a moral responsibility to rule all under heaven with China’s superior and refined culture and institutions—a political philosophy comprehensively illustrated in a 2010 manifesto called “The Chinese Dream” by a Chinese military writer. “There has never been such a thing in the world as a nation’s peaceful rise,” Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army wrote in the 300-page bestseller in China. “China possesses a superior cultural gene needed to become the world’s leader.” By serendipity or by design, Chinese Supreme Leader Xi Jinping’s overall political platform is also called “the Chinese Dream.” China therefore is not simply a country of consequence, but a civilizational block that serves to inspire the world to be more like China and accept China’s way of governance.

In fact, China’s unshakable sense of victimhood and humiliation, vigorously promoted by the Chinese government for decades, is as much about China’s suffering since the Opium War of the 1840s at the hands of Western imperialists, as about the resentment and loathing toward the idea that the magnificent Celestial Kingdom has been bullied by far less sophisticated, morally inferior little countries with little or no refined cultural heritage and intellectual splendor.

Translated into the South China Sea gambit, China’s aggressive behavior and excessive maritime claims can boil down to simply a matter of correcting the pattern of the Big Country not being respected by these pesky Little Countries around the South China Sea, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries that resist the Big Country the most.

One doesn’t even have to resort to conjectures to find the prevalent utterances by China’s top officials about how daguo (Big Country) should not be resisted by xiaoguo (Little Countries). Since March 2013, Supreme Leader Xi Jinping has been espousing the core of his foreign policy, neatly called “Big Country Diplomacy.” Former PLA Navy chief Liu Huaqing repeatedly told his American counterparts in the 1990s that his problem was not China, as the Big Country, bullying the Little Countries, but the other way around, i.e., these Little Countries bullying the Big Country. China’s state-run media, most noticeably the jingoist Global Times, have justified China’s bellicosity toward its many neighbors as “punitive” actions to teach the Little Countries lessons and restore their submission to the Big Country.

“China is a big country and other countries are little countries, and that's just a fact,” China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told his Singapore counterpart in 2010. His successor FM Wang Yi, while insisting China would be benevolent toward “smaller countries” in the South China Sea region, expressly told the world in March 2014 that “we will never accept unreasonable demands from little countries.”

The Way of the Kings—China’s empire-building method through coercive persuasion
Closely related to Sino-centrism is China’s seasoned approach to conquest by moral persuasion, subjugation by voluntary acknowledgement of China’s supremacy, an element of the Chinese strategic culture known as wangdao, or the Way of the Kings. Under this scheme, blunt force will be used only if/when Little Countries do not accept China’s wangdao and refuse to kowtow to the magnanimous and benevolent China. If they choose to continue resisting China’s generous offer of lordship and suzerainty, then China feels justly snubbed.

Therefore, China always tends to think of itself as the victim of not being respected by the pesky little countries who naturally deserve punishment and armed repulsion, sort of acting like Rodney Dangerfield who constantly complains about not getting enough respect.

Consequently, from China’s perspective, all the military build-up in the South China Sea—ranging from reclamation of islands for military airstrips, installation of military radar facilities and air defense missile batteries, to deployment of supersonic fighter jets and a fleet of warships in the disputed area––is always viewed by China’s leaders as defensive in nature, a just and fair way of re-tuning the corrupted regional and world order straight to its rightful and original setting.