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.
Neither side seeks a military conflict. For China’s part, it will continue its strategy of balancing assertive rights-protection activities with actions to maintain stability in its relations with other states. It will not allow matters to get out of hand. After all, China needs time to “digest and consolidate” (消化巩固) its recent gains in the South China Sea. Chinese leaders have no desire to watch a military crisis escalate into a war, which would imperil the current “period of strategic opportunity” to focus on domestic affairs.
The authors reckon that the United States will remain neutral on the South China Sea disputes. It merely seeks to ensure freedom of navigation and maintain a deterrent posture. Moreover, the United States is not yet in a position to pick a fight: its “Rebalance to Asia” remains incomplete. Meanwhile, the small states rimming the South China Sea have no appetite for military conflict. With newly constructed facilities in the Spratly Islands, China has gained the strategic initiative (战略主动权). This has resulted in “a certain deterrent effect on other claimant states.” In sum, armed conflict in the South China Sea can basically be ruled out.
Part two examines some of the specific scenarios China might face. Any crisis could involve a number of possible countries. These include both other claimants and extra-regional powers. Aside from the United States and Japan, the authors believe that India and Australia might also get involved (介入) in a crisis. These states would seize on the opportunity to clamp down on (钳制), repress (阻遏), and contain (牵制) China.
In the last part of their paper, Jin, Xu and Wang outline a number of steps China should take to strengthen its ability to handle future crises. First, it should use political, economic and diplomatic means to improve relations with Southeast Asian states, thereby “dividing and disrupting” (分化瓦解) any potential alliances directed against China, creating a favorable strategic environment, and reducing the incentives (诱因) for crises. This is the soft edge of Chinese strategy. At the same time, China should take steps to highlight its red lines (亮明底线), engage in demonstrations of power (展示实力) and adopt other coercive measures to deter military crises from taking place.
The authors readily acknowledge what Chinese leaders fiercely deny in public: that “the struggle in the South China Sea is not just about contention over rights and interests. More than that, it is a struggle for dominance (主导权) in regional security affairs.” Given the stakes, China should use all of the means at its disposal—political, economic, diplomatic, legal, public opinion and military.
Jin, Xu and Wang endorse China’s current approach to handling disputes in the South China Sea. They describe it as “being both principled and flexible” (原则性与灵活性相统一). This expression they place in quotes, suggesting a doctrinal origin. Actions to assert Chinese prerogatives must remain in “dynamic balance” with those designed to calm tensions. This is the great balancing act that has long sat at the core of Chinese maritime dispute strategy, and which explains the incongruities and pendular swings in Chinese behavior.
China’s strategy must remain proactive. China should continue to engage in what they call protracted war (持久战), according to the authors. By this, they mean prosecuting a “long-term, patient and comprehensive contest to master the strategic initiative” (掌握战略主动). The trends favor China. In their view, “after the expansion of Chinese facilities in the Spratlys, China gained a certain initiative in terms of military security. As time goes on, the balance of power will tilt in China’s favor.” This ensures the conditions for China to continue its current strategy of placing fishing, oil/gas and law enforcement forces on the front lines, which the authors pithily describe as “sending civilians first, and following them with the military” (民进军随) and “concealing the military among civilians” (以民掩军).
The article concludes by reminding readers how a future crisis, if handled right, might actually present fresh opportunities. China’s recent past teems with such examples. Jin, Xu, and Wang explain that the struggles against Japan near the Senkaku Islands and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal “show that actively using crises and adroitly exploiting crises, mastering crises and even proactively manufacturing crises (主动制造危机), enable China to safeguard its interests. Only by taking proactive measures can China achieve ultimate victory in this contest.”
Crises provide pretexts to punish other states, another benefit not lost on the authors. Jin, Hui and Wang show no scruples about recommending that their country “savagely strike others where it hurts” (狠狠敲打其痛处). After all, they write, some claimants must be sacrificed to teach lessons to others and discourage collusion, that is, “kill a chicken to scare a monkey” (杀鸡骇猴).
Lastly, China should play an active role in regional nontraditional security affairs and disaster relief efforts. The authors write, such activities would serve to “shape a China-dominated (以我为主导) South China Sea security situation and crisis response coordination mechanism.” In the end, this too could help create conditions for the final resolution of the South Chinese Sea problem.
Readers will draw their own conclusions from the above summary. For us, this article confirms that Chinese strategy in the South China Sea is expansionary in aim, incremental by design and realist in orientation. It also validates the judgment that Beijing’s strategic considerations are largely focused on the United States—the only other state that can disrupt China’s plans or compete with it for the regional influence it desires. This article offers little discussion about other South China Sea claimants, presumably because China’s military and economic strength already gives them few options.
With this article, we gain valuable insights into the strategic rationale behind China’s decision to construct massive new facilities in the Spratly Islands, a topic still rarely discussed in broader Chinese discourse. To the extent that Jin, Hui and Wang reflect mainstream thinking in the PLA Navy, their views suggest that the new bases were always intended to alter the military balance in the South China Sea—regardless of how Chinese diplomats prefer to highlight their civilian character. Chinese decisionmakers probably believe that the balance now tilts strongly in China’s favor, and this is unlikely to change until American completes its great “pivot” to Asia, if it ever does.
We take some comfort in the trio’s apparent desire to avoid armed conflict in the South China Sea. However, their attitudes suggest that the Chinese military may be too cocksure about its own ability to manage a military crisis at sea. Particularly worrisome, America is the assumed adversary, but never do the authors even mention the role nuclear weapons might play in a crisis.
Though this article possesses a rare combination of candor and authority, it does not close the book on our quest to understand Chinese intentions in the South China Sea. It represents just one source of information, Chinese intentions are evolving, and the PLA Navy is not the only Chinese actor operating there. It does, however, offer a very rare window into how the Chinese navy understands national objectives in the South China Sea, frames its own strategy and evaluates future options.
Ryan Martinson is an assistant professor at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. CAPT Katsuya Yamamoto is the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Liaison Officer and International Military Professor at the U.S. Naval War College. The opinions expressed do not reflect the assessments of the U.S. Navy or the JMSDF.