Three PLAN Officers May Have Just Revealed What China Wants in the South China Sea

China's aircraft carrier Liaoning sails into Hong Kong, China July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Greg Torode

Chinese strategy in the South China Sea is expansionary in aim, incremental by design and realist in orientation.

Earlier this year, Kyodo News published a tantalizing summary of a Chinese article that seemed to offer rare insights into Beijing’s intentions in the South China Sea. Unfortunately, Kyodo’s report was too vague to be fully appreciated, or long-remembered. We have tracked down the original. It is well worth a closer look.

The article comes from a special class of periodical published by the Chinese military for “internal distribution.” These are not classified documents per se. Rather, they are teaching materials and scholarly works written for a select audience. Due to this restricted access, these works are both candid and extremely authoritative. As such, they offer invaluable insights into the thinking of the Chinese military and party-state.

This particular article was printed in a mid-2016 issue of Naval Studies (海军军事学术), one of the most important “internal distribution” periodicals on maritime affairs in China. Run by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Naval Research Institute, it is a bimonthly scholarly journal that delves into a range of topics on naval strategy.

The article is titled “Military Crises in the South China Sea: Analysis, Assessment, and Responses.” It was written by three Chinese naval officers: Lt. Comm. Jin Jing, a researcher at the Naval Research Institute, and Commanders Xu Hui and Wang Ning, both political officers from the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet. We assume that analysis published by these three mid-level officers in this forum is orthodox, honest and very well-informed.

The article comprises three sections. Part one analyzes the current situation in the South China Sea, providing context for discussion of future military crises. Part two examines the likely characteristics of any given crisis. The article concludes with policy recommendations.

Jin, Xu and Wang begin with strategic context. Similar to analyses published in open sources, they blame the United States for much of the tension in the South China Sea. Since 2015, the authors write, the U.S. military has ramped up its provocative behavior near Chinese-occupied features in the Spratly Archipelago—the large group of islands claimed (either wholly or in part) by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei. It has accompanied aircraft carrier, bomber and submarine patrols with “public opinion offensives” (舆论攻势) to discredit Beijing. Designed to “probe” (刺探) China’s red lines, these activities have had a “baleful effect on the security situation in the South China Sea.”

The authors write, the United States has long “stuck its nose in” (插手) South China Sea affairs. But for years, it only intervened from behind the scenes. It did not publicly declare a position on any of the disputes themselves. American military operations in these waters were always fairly restrained. However, since 2015, the “balance of initiative” in the South China Sea has gradually “tilted towards China.” As a result, the United States has grown “restless” (躁动), and become more assertive.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative has also agitated the Americans. Citing a book published by the late Zbigniew Brzezinski, they claim that the primary task of American strategy in the twenty-first century is to prevent the rise of any state that might “challenge American hegemony on the Eurasian continent.” As such, China’s Belt and Road Initiative—which spreads PRC influence across Eurasia—is certain to “touch a raw nerve in the American hegemon” (触摸到美国霸权的敏感神经). As an important but troubled segment in the twenty-first century maritime Silk Road, the South China Sea makes a fine target for American subversion.

In the future, China can expect tense interactions with the U.S. military, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (whose direct involvement in the South China Sea is “inevitable”), and Southeast Asian states. The authors survey these developments and conclude that there is a “severe possibility” of a maritime crisis in in the South China Sea. This point is hardly controversial.

What is striking is that the authors are extremely sanguine about how such a crisis might play out. In their view, the scale and intensity of any future crisis could be kept under control, and the “possibility of a crisis leading to a military conflict or a war is not at all large.” The U.S.-China relationship will continue to be characterized by a tendency to “struggle but not split” (斗而不破). The two countries maintain strong ties and common interests in important areas: economics, politics and global issues. These links will prevent crisis escalation. Also on the plus side, the authors point out that in encounters at sea both militaries are fairly restrained.