Magnetic Rocks: Assessing China's Legal Strategy in the South China Sea

Beijing’s goal: to sustain regional peace and stability while also advancing its expansive claims. Can it succeed?

Editors Note: This is the first in a two-part series assessing the legal strategies of the South China Sea claimants in their broader strategic context. Below, Sean Mirski examines how China's strategy has been driven by its conflicting desire to both maintain regional stability and consolidate control over the South China Sea. For Part II of this series click here.

Centuries ago, Chinese fishermen referred to the isles of the South China Sea as “magnetic rocks”—a morbid allusion to the uncanny force that drew ships to unlucky fates on the shoals. Today, however, the South China Sea attracts a different kind of trouble. For the last six decades, the Sea has been the center of a geopolitical maelstrom fueled by great power politics, toxic nationalism, and bountiful petroleum reserves. Six different parties – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – feud with each other over both the South China Sea’s insular territories and their surrounding waters.

Of the six contenders, China has become the key player. It is the largest and most powerful disputant, and it has also advanced the most sweeping claims. Yet Beijing’s behavior does not always mirror its growing power and ambitions. Instead, China’s strategy is more complex, and is shaped primarily by Beijing’s desire to sustain regional peace and stability while also advancing its expansive claims.

This dilemma has led China to emphasize delaying resolution of the conflict, as best exemplified in its legal strategy for the dispute. But this strategy has become increasingly marginalized in recent years as China has become a victim of its own success. Other claimants have realized the perils of playing by China’s rules, so they have instead countered China’s delaying strategy with a more pro-active posture intended to push Beijing to stop dithering and to face its dilemma head-on. China has struggled to respond, and its reaction has raised tensions across the region while failing to change its opponents’ calculus. As the dispute escalates, China may feel mounting pressure to abandon its delaying strategy and to seek a swifter resolution to the conflict—as the events unfolding now are beginning to show.

China’s Conflicting Strategic Interests

Rising Peacefully

To understand Beijing’s predicament, consider its conflicting strategic interests. On the one hand, China seeks to perpetuate its decades-long growth streak. The statistics are familiar: the nation’s economy has been booming at an average annual rate of almost ten percent over the last thirty-five years, and its economy has doubled in size five times during this period. Even if its growth slows to some extent, China’s economy could—and indeed, almost certainly will—eclipse that of the United States in the coming future.

But, geopolitically speaking, China’s growth is relatively unusual. Rather than engaging in Charles Tilly’s dialectical “state making” and “war making,” Beijing instead embedded itself in the liberal international economic order. In retrospect, this decision proved prescient: China has been prospering ever since it hitched its economy to American-led globalization.

International economic interdependence doesn’t happen in a vacuum, though. To work its commercial magic, economic interdependence needs a relatively peaceful external environment. Conflicts can tear apart the economic relationships at the heart of an open trading system and cleave China away from valuable trading partners, even if Beijing itself avoids getting involved. Worst of all, any regional imbroglios could usher in even more American political and military power into the region – a threat to China’s longer term ambitions of regional preeminence (if not dominance).

To keep growing, then, China needs a stable and peaceful Asia. Consequently, China’s leaders have repeatedly cast their policies in terms of a “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development.” This strategy involves more than mere rhetoric: over the last three decades, Beijing has settled numerous border disputes; engaged in skillful regional diplomacy; become actively involved in regional and international governmental organizations; and signed mutually beneficial trade agreements across the world. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that China has also behaved remarkably well in the military sphere: it last fought a war in 1979, and has only been involved in one minor skirmish in the South China Sea since then (Johnson South Reef in 1988). In short, China has tried to be a model regional citizen, all in service of its economic ambitions.

Controlling the South China Sea

But while Beijing’s long-term ambitions counsel restraint, its more immediate objectives – including sovereignty over the South China Sea – pull the other way. In Beijing’s ideal world, China would now be the undisputed master of the South China Sea.

Beijing seeks to control the South China Sea in order to manage national security threats and advance its economic objectives. The Sea represents a strategic vulnerability for China, both as a historical invasion route and as a modern threat to its energy security and export-oriented economy. Controlling the South China Sea would also offer many tangible benefits. The Sea teems with bountiful fishing stocks, a mainstay of many regional economies. Beneath the ocean floor, even more valuable assets wait. Although experts differ about the size of the potential bonanza, they all agree that there is enough petroleum and natural gas to make any bordering state covetous.