How China Views the South China Sea: As Sovereign Territory

The crux of the matter. For Chinese decision makers, the South China Sea—both the waters and the islands within it—are and have always been Chinese territory.

With the decision to conduct a Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) in the waters around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, U.S.-Chinese relations appear set to deteriorate in the coming year. Given the likely rise in tensions, especially if the United States conducts additional FONOPS, it is essential that U.S. leaders understand the Chinese perspective, even as they must make clear to Beijing (and others) that they are firmly committed to the principle of freedom of the seas.

Some have attempted to explain China’s approach by comparing it to the Monroe Doctrine. China, they say, is intent on asserting a sphere of influence, in which its interests are accorded primacy.

We should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as imperial Japan did in the 1930s. In fact, we are already seeing inklings of that policy. For example, Chinese leaders have made it clear they do not think the United States has a right to interfere in disputes over the maritime boundaries of the South China Sea, a strategically important body of water that Beijing effectively claims as its own.

An alternative analogy often drawn likens China to either imperial, Wilhelmine or even Nazi Germany. In this portrayal, China is intent upon expanding its territorial holdings; the islands of the South China Sea are a twenty-first-century version of Alsace-Lorraine, or Danzig.

Missing from both of these attempts to recast China’s actions into more familiar ground is the role of sovereignty in the Chinese conception of its claims.

Beijing does not see its South China Sea activities in the same light as either nineteenth-century America or twentieth-century Germany. In protesting the entry of the USS Lassen into the waters near the artificial island China has built atop Subi Reef, the Chinese used language that makes their concerns quite clear. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang declared that the USS Lassen “illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government.” He added that Beijing “has stressed on many occasions that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters. China’s sovereignty and relevant rights over the South China Sea have been formed over the long course of history.”

Sovereignty as the Central Issue:

The Chinese formulation underscores that, from Beijing’s perspective, the central issue is a basic one of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Chinese leadership since at least Deng Xiaoping has consistently characterized its approach to various maritime disputes in the same way: “Sovereignty is ours; defer disputes; engage in joint development.” When Deng set forth this formulation in the 1980s, the emphasis was on the second two clauses. At the time, he suggested that this issue could be set aside for the next—and perhaps wiser—generation to resolve. In the meantime, China was open to joint exploitation of resources.

But where the emphasis under Deng was on rapidly pushing economic development, the focus under Hu Jintao, and even more under Xi Jinping, has steadily shifted to the first clause: “sovereignty is ours.” Part of this shift is likely rooted in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS required states to file formal declarations of their baselines by May 2009, or else risk losing their rights to seabed and offshore resources. As the various parties to the Spratlys dispute (including not only the PRC and Taiwan, but also Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) all had economic interests, it behooved them to file formal claims—claims which Beijing sees as jeopardizing its own claims to sovereignty.

But China’s posture as the aggrieved party is not solely rooted in UNCLOS filings. One striking theme that arises in any discussion with Chinese officials regarding the South China Sea is the view that the neighboring states have been encroaching on China’s territories—deliberately. Some of this, as General Fang Fenghui indicated when he visited the United States, is seen as inspired by American encouragement. But as important is the argument that China’s neighbors are exploiting Beijing’s patience and forbearance. Chinese interlocutors note that China has not drilled as many wells, has not built airfields and did not first expand its islands. The Chinese position is that they have shown restraint in not reacting to these activities—even though they are presumably occurring on Chinese territory.

This is the crux of the matter. For Chinese decision makers, the South China Sea—both the waters and the islands within it—are and have always been Chinese territory. The neighbors’ actions are not merely alternative claims; they are an effort to amputate a piece of China. In this context, China is not Germany: China is France or Poland.