China's Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability

Chinese leaders are torn by two conflicting goals: The desire to regain “lost” islands and waters and a need to maintain stable relations with neighbors and America. 

During a July 2015 television news show, Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong was asked to define China’s strategy in the South China Sea. After first declining to answer the question—“I can’t tell this to outsiders. I can’t tell you.”—the raspy-voiced professor quickly found a compromise between discretion and the academic’s inherent need to expatiate. With fellow guest, naval analyst Li Jie, nodding on, Shi described China’s strategy in four characters: 步步为营 (bubu weiying):  “Building fortifications after each new advance.”

Professor Shi’s image of an army on the march, carefully consolidating its position after new territory is gained, is only the latest in a long line of metaphors used to depict China’s recent expansion in maritime East Asia. Most are products of American minds. They range from the sartorial to the salacious. Some, like “salami slicing,” are standard terms used by political scientists for decades. Many will doubtless serve as fodder for future scholars seeking to understand both the observers and the observed.

Almost all of these metaphors are descriptive. That is, they are largely based on analysis of patterns of behavior. As such, they shed little light on how Chinese policymakers may actually think about their options. To understand that, one must begin by recognizing the colossal contradiction that sits at the heart of China’s approach to its maritime disputes.

The Weight of Desire:

Chinese policymakers, citing “international law,” claim that the country is entitled to jurisdiction over three million square kilometers of ocean. However, so the Chinese narrative goes, nearly half of this “maritime territory” is contested by other states. With Taiwan quiescent, it is no wonder then that China’s disputes dominate the thinking of those who craft the country’s peacetime maritime strategy.

When formulating maritime dispute strategy, Chinese leaders are torn by two conflicting desires. These might be imagined as the two ends of an equal-arm balance. The first desire is to regain “lost” islands and waters controlled or contested by foreign states. The second is a desire to maintain stable relations with these same states and with the “global hegemon” (i.e., the U.S.)—a condition deemed essential for the number one objective of China’s grand strategy, economic development. Chinese policy, then, should be understood as a function of how Chinese policymakers balance these two desires.

This metaphor is not original. In a 2013 paper, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) researcher Zhang Jie looked at the evolution of Chinese dispute strategy and identified three discrete periods. The first period, lasting until 2009, she calls the period of keeping a low-profile, when China self-consciously strived not to let its claims harm relations with other states. In 2010 and 2011, what Zhang labels the period of policy oscillation, Chinese leaders sometimes took assertive action and sometimes showed restraint, with policy swinging back and forth like a pendulum.

Phase three began in 2012 and continues to the present. Zhang calls it the period of proactivity.  In her view, changes in observed behavior across these three periods were a result of Chinese policymakers altering their judgments about the relative importance of advancing and defending China’s maritime claims—called “rights protection” (weiquan)—and maintaining stable relations with its neighbors and the U.S. (weiwen).

Evidence from the Real World:

Unfortunately for the reader, Zhang does not bear out her theory with empirical evidence. A close analysis of the available record, however, does validate Zhang’s thesis. Indeed, Chinese policymakers have long conceived of dispute policy in terms of rights protection and stability maintenance. Moreover, the desire for stability is often explicitly linked to the so-called “period of strategic opportunity,” a concept referring to the first two decades of the 21st century during which China can expect an international environment generally congenial to its economic development.