China's Grand-Strategy Challenge: Creating Its Own Islands in the South China Sea

China’s grand strategy in the South China Sea seems pretty clear—change facts in the water. 

Satellite images analyzed by defense intelligence magazine IHS Jane’s show that China is reclaiming on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands a piece of land that bears the shape of a 3000-meter airfield and a harbor large enough to receive tankers and major warships. This is not the first, but the latest in a series of land reclamations that China is conducting both in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

What does China want with this island building? What is the ultimate objective of these projects? The usual lens we use to decipher strategic moves on the international arena is ill suited to answer these questions. It views the game nations play in term of chess, but China is playing weiqi in the South China Sea.

Weiqi, better known in the West by its Japanese name, go, is the oldest Chinese board game that bears much parallel to an influential branch of traditional Chinese strategic thinking. While chess is a game of checkmate, weiqi, as its very name tells us, is a game of encirclement. In weiqi, there are no kings, queens or pawns as there are in chess, only identical stones whose power depends on where they are in the larger arrangement of the pieces. If chess is a contest of armies, weiqi is a struggle between configurations. Whereas the competent chess player aims at the destruction of the enemy’s physical power, a proficient weiqi player strives for the control of strategic positions, from which position-based power emanates.

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If the South China Sea is seen as a chessboard, China’s moves in it appear largely trivial. Advanced forward are mostly pawns, while there is little movement of the more powerful figures. Perhaps the most formidable piece on the board is an underground base for nuclear missile submarines at Yulin on the southern coast of Hainan Island. However, this base is not located in the disputed areas. The main forces involved in the South China Sea dispute are rarely the military, but predominantly fishing boats and lightly armed government vessels. And the central objects of the contest are tiny, barren, often-submerged rocks.

Apparently looking at this game from a chess-like perspective, a very senior U.S. diplomat said, “great powers don’t go to war over rocks,” and a leading scholar of Chinese naval affairs concluded, “these tensions between a rising power and its neighbors are natural and constitute no major danger to the global balance of power, nor even to the normal functioning of the international system.”

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But in the eyes of the weiqi player, what China has done in the South China Sea is a classic example of how to play the game masterfully. The ultimate goal is to gain control of the region. The campaign to achieve this goal relies on creeping expansion, rather than major battles. This creeping expansion is a protracted undertaking that is played out in decades. In accordance with this strategy, salami slicing and small-stick diplomacy are the preferred tactics. The underlying logic is to gradually shift the propensity of things in favor of Chinese dominance by unobtrusively maneuvering the strategic configuration of the region.

This strategy requires a number of imperatives, each of which is built on top of another. The first imperative is to avoid open armed strikes as much as possible; clashes can be initiated, but only to exploit an existing favorable situation. The second imperative is to control the most strategic positions in the sea; if not already in possession, these positions must be seized stealthily if possible and in a limited conflict if necessary. The third imperative is to develop these positions into strong points of control, robust hubs of logistics and effective bases of power projection.

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The history of the PRC’s involvement in the South China Sea dispute has neatly followed these imperatives.

While China was ready to engage in military confrontation, it usually avoided employing large armed battles to enlarge its sphere of control. Of the numerous attempts by Beijing to snatch new possessions during these six decades, only two involved armed conflicts. The first of the two took place in January 1974 against South Vietnam and concluded with China seizing the western half of the Paracel Islands, the Crescent Group, from the former. The second was a far smaller—but no less bloody—skirmish against unified Vietnam at Johnson South Reef in March 1988.

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