China's Calibrated Response to the South China Sea Is Firm (Yet Flexible)

The Chinese navy destroyer Qingdao moors at the pier in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Beijing won’t allow its aggression to compromise the underlying goal of stability.

China’s response to The Hague’s recent South China Sea arbitration ruling has been mixed. Despite negative rhetoric to the press and some military posturing, Beijing has—for the moment—avoided some of the more incendiary possible responses, such as conducting land reclamation around Scarborough Shoal, and has indicated a willingness to renew dialogue with Manila. The United States should welcome evidence of Chinese restraint, but prepare for an uptick of tensions, especially after September’s G20 meeting.

The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ submission was largely unfavorable to Beijing. The tribunal invalidated China’s “nine-dash line,” which covers roughly 85 percent of the South China Sea, denied any claims to “historic rights” therein, ruled that none of the maritime features included in the case are legally “islands” and thus entitled to 200-nautical miles exclusive economic zones, found that China had violated UNCLOS provisions to protect the marine environment, and concluded that Beijing had violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating the dispute, including by carrying out its large-scale land reclamation program.     

China’s response to the ruling has in many ways been negative, even hawkish. A Foreign Ministry statement and subsequent government white paper rejected the ruling and restated that Beijing had no intention of abiding by it. Later, China’s Defense Minister made headlines by calling for preparations for a “people’s war at sea.” Beijing also took a few tangible steps to signal displeasure, including sending civilian aircraft to land on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, conducting naval exercises in the South China Sea  and most notably, dispatching H-6K bombers and other aircraft as part of a new practice of regular “combat air patrols” in the region.

However, China avoided more provocative actions that some observers considered likely or possible reactions to a negative ruling. Beijing did not, for instance, immediately establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, deploy fighter jets to its newly built airstrips in the Spratlys or begin land reclamation around Scarborough Shoal, which U.S. analysts warned would have allowed the PLA to complete a “strategic triangle” of bases in the region. Commenting specifically on China’s lack of dredging at Scarborough Shoal, U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris summed up the entire situation by noting that “I think we’re at a place where truly we have to wait and see.”

There were also signs that Beijing wanted to calm the situation diplomatically. On July 25, after an ASEAN ministerial meeting in Laos, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the situation should be “cooled down” and affirmed that China would work with ASEAN to “jointly safeguard peace and stability” in the South China Sea. Encouraged by his own discussions with Wang and Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay on the sidelines of the meeting, Secretary of State Kerry said that he thought it would be possible to “turn the page” on recent tensions. Domestically, Beijing tried to calm the situation by tamping down, rather than encouraging, protests targeting the United States and the Philippines.

China’s mixed response to the ruling can be explained as a microcosm of the larger balancing act that Beijing is conducting in the South China Sea. On one hand, China has sought to signal its intent to enforce its maritime claims and gradually expand its effective control over the region. This is the heart of what Beijing regards as its long-term goal of becoming a “maritime great power.” Accompanying this is the domestic political need to assuage nationalists who demand a firm response to perceived slights, such as the arbitration ruling. Strident diplomatic rhetoric and military deployments, such as the new practice of conducting combat air patrols, service both of these objectives.

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