China's New Calculations in the South China Sea

Stimson Spotlight

China's New Calculations in the South China Sea

In recent months, China's unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea (SCS) have driven regional tensions to a new high. China's well-calculated moves are motivated by multiple internal and external factors. These include boosting President Xi Jinping's prestige and authority for his domestic reform agenda, along with an assumption that the United States is extremely unlikely to intervene at this moment in time. Other than the overt actions to assert its claims in the SCS, official statements and legal studies analysis from within China also reflect a recalibrated determination to uphold the country's controversial nine-dashed line in the South China Sea.

From a Chinese perspective, the most transparent and direct explanation of China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea is simple: China believes that its past unilateral restraint has done nothing to improve China’s position regarding SCS disputes and these inactions have in fact resulted in other claimant countries strengthening their presence and claims. Therefore, for China to improve its position in the current climate or for future negotiations, it must first change the status-quo through all available means necessary. China prefers to utilize civilian and paramilitary approaches but does not reject military coercion if required. An advantaged position and certain exclusive privilege in the South China Sea are both believed to be indispensable for China’s aspiration to become a “strong maritime power,” a “key task” stipulated by the 18th Party Congress in 2012 and a policy personally endorsed by Xi. While China’s aspirations for a “Blue Water Navy” and naval expansion face multiple choke points along its east coast from Japan down to the Philippines, the South China Sea is considered to offer China a much larger and less constrained maritime domain for naval maneuvers. 

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Photo credit: Asitimes via flickr