China’s Strategy in the South China Sea

In this article in Contemporary Southeast Asia, I examine China’s behavior in the South China Sea disputes through the lens of its strategy for managing its claims. Since the mid-1990s, China has pursued a strategy of delaying the resolution of the dispute.

In the article, I make several arguments:

  • The goal of China’s strategy is to consolidate its claims, especially to maritime rights or jurisdiction over the South China Sea, and to deter other states from strengthening their own claims at China’s expense, including resource development projects that exclude China.
  • Since the mid-2000s, the pace of China’s efforts to consolidate its claims and deter others has increased through diplomatic, administrative and military means, especially the use of civil maritime law enforcement agencies
  • Although China’s strategy seeks to consolidate its own claims, it threatens weaker states in the dispute and is inherently destabilizing.  As a result, China’s delaying strategy in the South China Sea includes efforts to prevent the escalation of tensions while nevertheless seeking to consolidate China’s claims.
  • Chinese compromises or concessions over maritime rights and especially territorial sovereignty are unlikely, as the perceived value of controlling the islands and waters is only likely to grow. Instead, China may seek to moderate the manner in which it seeks to pursue its claims.
  • What could change China’s calculations, however, might be improved security ties between other claimants and the United States. If coupled with what China might view as increasing assertiveness by these states in the dispute, China might then view its position as weakening and be more likely to use force.

Read the article.

One comment

  1. Stanley says:

    Dear Taylor,

    I generally agree with your five arguments above.

    However, I have serious doubts about America’s staying power in the region. Last year, in 2011, America made a tremendous effort to step up its role in the region. It became an EAS member. It enhanced its security ties with Australia. It even rode on the TPP agenda which was originally proposed by four small countries. The US has also played a more active role in calling for Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.

    Whether America can sustained such a presence in the region is doubtful for the following reasons. First, the American economy is in relative decline. Second, the US will be preoccupied with its domestic presidential and congressional elections this year. Normally, in such a year, domestic bread and butter issues will loom large over foreign policy issues. Whether America can press on with its pivoting towards the Asia-Pacific remains to be seen. Third, there seems to be indications that Hillary Clinton, a key architect in engineering America’s tilt to the Asia Pacific, may step down from Obama’s foreign policy team.

    Personally, I think that America has helped to provide stability in the Asia-Pacific which has benefitted small countries in the region, i.e. provided the space for them to propser. However, I’m concerned about the ability of America to sustain this role going forward. If it cannot do so, then other countries would become more assertive in the region.

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