America Has a Chance to Beat Back China's South China Sea Strategy

The Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyers USS John S. McCain, USS Kidd and USS Stethem operate in the South China Sea. Flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

Beijing is revealing its new maritime strategy. America must be ready to stop it.

Ahead of the looming International Tribunal ruling on the Philippine-initiated arbitration case against China’s contested maritime sovereignty claims in the South China Sea (SCS), Chinese diplomats and government officials are conducting an aggressive PR campaign throughout the region and across the globe to influence world opinion and present China and its legal and political positions as correct, through the publication of various comments by sympathetic world leaders, legal scholars and international relations experts. They want to highlight the positive aspects of Beijing’s maritime security comportment and accentuate the benevolent features of its growing presence in the SCS, while peddling the same familiar public-diplomacy themes—the United States as the destabilizing aggressor; China as the virtuous but hapless victim; and the source of all regional trouble as Washington’s arm-twisting of its allies and partners in Manila, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur—and steadily messaging that it does not recognize the jurisdiction and authority of the International Tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague to rule in this case. All in all, this PR shift may be part of a larger adjustment by Beijing of its assertive actions in the SCS in response to the mounting unfavorable geopolitical conditions and regional trends. If so, what does the PR shift reveal about Beijing’s maritime strategy, and more importantly, what can Washington do to shape and influence that evolving strategy?

Why the PR Shift?

There are three possible motives why China may have taken a more forceful PR posture. First and foremost, anticipating an unfavorable PCA merits ruling, Beijing wants to occupy the moral high ground in support of its public-diplomacy stance, while portraying Washington as the destabilizing aggressor to uphold its maritime sovereignty claims, preserve its strategic positions and mitigate impact to its national interests.

Second, China has certainly taken notice that its unilateralism the past few years has alarmed its neighbors (and fellow SCS claimants) and driven them in varying degrees toward the United States, undermining its ultimate goal of regional preeminence (and possibly global primacy). Hence, President Xi Jinping is now touting a new kinder, gentler and more tolerant foreign policy toward China’s neighboring countries. He apparently wants cooperative international relations, a network of global partners, and a regional security outlook characterized by “consultation, common construction, sharing, and a security governance model with Asian features” to counter the United States’ rebalance to the region.

Third, Beijing may have made the rational calculation that it has already achieved significant gains and that for now, it needs to simply exercise strategic patience to consolidate those gains. China’s land reclamation and militarization of its various geographic features have given it the capability and capacity to monitor and control much of the SCS. Thus, while China occupies a position of regional advantage and strength, it must take care not to risk its advances through needless acts of aggression. Otherwise, it invites the erosion of its strategic positions and further delays in its strategic timetables. All Beijing really needs to do is to sustain discrete and steady assertiveness through words, in order to safeguard its strategic interests without indulging in overreaching actions that could encourage stronger responses by Washington and its allies and partners in the region and/or collective actions by the other SCS claimants.

What Do Recent SCS Moves Reveal about China’s Maritime Strategy?

As tensions ebb and flow in the SCS, China has kept its eye on the bigger picture: developing comprehensive maritime power. In early March, Beijing ratified an outline of its thirteenth Five-Year Plan (2016–20). This was Xi Jinping’s first major influence on the direction of China’s national strategy, and maritime issues featured prominently therein. This was also another substantive glimpse of what an emerging Chinese maritime strategy may look like.

Beijing Sees Beyond the SCS. China’s activities in the SCS are driven by its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory” crucial for China’s development and security. The SCS is the current hotspot—the crisis du jour—but Beijing’s focus will undoubtedly shift in the future. Next may be a return to the East China Sea in search of new gains, into the Indian Ocean or even into the Arctic. Indeed, tensions appear to be rising again in the East China Sea, as evidenced by China’s growing agitation with and distrust of newly elected Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen, and its provocative maritime incursions into Japanese-claimed territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands.

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