China's Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability

September 11, 2015 Topic: Security Region: South China Sea Tags: ChinaUnited StatesMaritime Strategy

China's Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability

Chinese leaders are torn by two conflicting goals: The desire to regain “lost” islands and waters and a need to maintain stable relations with neighbors and America. 

Chinese strategists have clearly recognized the value of controlling access to and from islands and other land features. By deciding who can and cannot use the sea, China is able to decide who can and cannot occupy land. With Scarborough Shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, and now the Luconia Breakers, China has used maritime law enforcement ships to achieve these ends nonviolently, daring other states to fire the first shot. There is strong reason to believe that China will adopt this approach to assert control over other features—if it judges such actions pose no threat to stability.

The rights/stability model also provides a solid foundation for debating American policy responses. It reveals that Beijing is acutely conscious that its actions risk creating instability in its foreign relations. Moreover, it suggests that instability is its greatest concern. Thus, if the U.S. wishes to contain the spatial expansion of the Chinese state, it must be prepared to conjure the specter of instability. That is, Chinese policymakers must be persuaded that their actions could lead to outcomes that ultimately threaten the “period of strategic opportunity.” Given the apparent cracks in the foundation of China’s economic model, this prospect has likely never been more fearsome to Chinese leaders.

Ryan Martinson is a researcher at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

Image: Flickr/Ping-Shakl