Will the South China Sea Become the New Crimea?

People’s Liberation Army Navy ships in Auckland. Flickr/Creative Commons/@ping.shakl

Xi Jinping has successfully avoided maritime overreach—but that might be about to change.

The burgeoning friendship between President Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin in recent times reflects the similarities in their personal leadership styles. Both regimes are defined by an emphasis on the individual leader, as opposed to institutions, thereby embodying the “personalist” model in which leaders portray themselves as strong and unique figureheads upon which the fate of the entire nation depends. This model of leadership, which often drives personalist leaders to seek national prestige for their country in order to maintain domestic popularity, can also lead to foreign-policy overreach. While efforts to gain national prestige can result in personalist regimes gaining power abroad, they often also result in the crystallization of alliances among affected nations in resistance to the adventurist regime. Putin is currently suffering the effects of this overreach trap following Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

Crimea: A Pyrrhic Victory

While Russia is increasingly preoccupied by rising tensions with NATO in the Baltics, Putin’s Eurasian grand strategy is stagnating, as Central Asian nations have become suspicious of possible Russian neo-imperialism following the occupation of Crimea. The strategy’s flagship project, the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), is currently languishing. This is due to Russia’s economic troubles—caused in part by the Western sanctions imposed in reaction to Russia’s actions in Ukraine—filtering through to the Central Asian economies, which rely on Russia for most of their two-way trade. The effect of the sanctions, compounded by the decrease in global oil prices, is demonstrated by the fall in trade turnover between Kazakhstan and Russia, from $28.5 billion in 2013 to $15.5 billion in 2015—a reduction of 45 percent. Moscow’s tendency to prioritize its adventurist foreign policy over regional economic considerations is causing increasing disquiet amongst EEU members, some of whom are becoming progressively disillusioned with the project.

This disillusionment among EEU members and other Central Asian nations toward Putin’s adventurism, and their suspicion of Russian neo-imperialism, may seriously undermine Moscow’s grand strategy. Firstly, it could lead to increased willingness among these nations to seek greater cooperation with the EU and China, at the expense of Russia. Another effect could be EEU member states collaborating to counter Moscow’s dominance of the union. Additionally, Moscow’s lack of funds to drive regional economic integration could result in Central Asian states increasing their focus on domestic reforms in order to spur their own economic development. The resulting reduction in economic dependency on Russia—the current status quo for many of these nations—could lead to increasing autonomy vis-à-vis Moscow.

Given the negative effect of Putin’s overreach in Crimea on his broader strategy, what is the likelihood of Xi suffering the same fate in the South China Sea? The development of Chinese maritime strategy since late 2012 is illuminating.

Xi’s “Maritime Power” Ambition for China

President Xi’s championing of the need for China to become a major maritime power, at a study session of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in July 2013, was a critical turning point. By building on outgoing president Hu Jintao’s speech at the Eighteenth National Congress of the CPC in November 2012—where the maritime-power theme was first introduced—Xi’s consolidation of the ambition marked the first time since the midpoint of the previous millennium that China had articulated a genuine desire to be a dominant maritime power. It also foreshadowed the ambitious and assertive foreign policy that the newly elected leader planned to implement.

At the CPC Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference in October 2013, the first conference of its kind, President Xi outlined an agenda built on China pushing regional disputants to accept its sovereignty claims, as well as conditioning the region to accept China’s “core interests.” Xi’s development of the strategic agenda over the course of 2013 illustrated a significant revision of previous Chinese foreign-policy paradigms: Deng Xiaoping’s model was to “hide your strength, bide your time,” while Hu Jintao was renowned for his strong belief that a peaceful and stable neighboring environment was critical for Chinese economic development.