The Forces Awakening Against an Antagonistic China

Diplomatic and legal pressure—along with military might—are limiting Beijing's options.

Few can deny that China has had a particularly challenging year. In an effort to augment its sovereignty claims over what it considers as its national “blue soil,” China has inadvertently encouraged a growing number of nations to coalesce against it. One could argue that China has overplayed its hand, unleashing a dangerous strategic dynamic that threatens the whole region.

Throughout the early years of this decade, China rapidly and inexorably altered the maritime status quo in East Asia, wresting control of Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal and deploying a giant oil rig into Vietnamese-claimed waters in the South China Sea. In possession of cutting-edge technology, and confidently overseeing decades of relentless military modernization as well as paramilitary mobilization, China has transformed a whole host of contested low-tide elevations (LTEs), atolls, shoals and rocks into full-fledged islands. Within twenty months, it has reclaimed seventeen times more land than the other claimants combined over the past four decades.

While such a massive geoengineering project has strengthened its hand on the ground, allowing Beijing to project power from these features across the South China Sea, it has angered regional and external powers and gradually unleashed a robust countercurrent to its plans of local domination. Beijing’s whiplash approach to regional territorial disputes is undermining its own interests as well as that of the whole region, which desperately relies on stability in Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) for uninterrupted and safe commerce. Beijing is now locked between the rock of domestic hawks, who are vigorously pushing for greater Chinese strategic grip on adjacent waters, and the hard place of growing international backlash, which is undermining China’s soft power—and its claim to regional leadership.

Constrainment in Action

Back in the mid-1990s, the Canadian political scientist Gerald Segal introduced the concept of “constrainment,” an arguably more reasonable alternative to Cold War-style “containment strategy,” which provided diminishing utility vis-à-vis post-ideological and highly economically integrated rising powers such as China. As Segal and other regional experts correctly assessed, China is not a monolithic expansionist power, and is in fact too large and consequential to be contained. It was a timely strategic doctrine that was not far from what George Kennan—who would come to lament the misappropriation of his concept of containment—had in mind throughout the Cold War.

In an influential article for the journal International Security, Segal underscored China’s strategic opportunism. He argued that “China’s [foreign] policy will remain softer only if pressure is maintained,” so a constrainment strategy is “intended to tell [China] that the outside world has interests that will be defended by means of incentives for good behavior, deterrence of bad behavior, and punishment when deterrence fails.” Segal made it clear that a constrainment strategy can work if “its neighbors and powers further afield. . . appreciate that they must act in a concerted fashion both to punish and to reward China.” For him, an optimal strategy “must use elements from a strategy of engagement as well as the balance of power.”

Today, we are beginning to see the emergence of a “constrainment” strategy against China. Smaller powers like the Philippines have resorted to lawfare (legal warfare) in order to leverage relevant provisions of United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) against China’s blatant disregard for the very convention it has signed up to (see my analysis of the arbitration case here).

For the Philippines, China’s assertive maritime posturing—regarding its deployment of military and paramilitary patrols to contested features, coercive occupation of contested features like the Scarborough Shoal and Mischief reef, harassment of Filipino fisherfolk, massive construction and reclamation activities across the Spratly chain of islands and destruction of the area’s ecology—are in clear contravention of regional principles such as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the UNCLOS.