China’s non-confrontational assertiveness in the South China Sea

Author: Li Mingjiang, RSIS

The past few years have been particularly eventful for the South China Sea dispute.

The tensions and related diplomatic pressures exerted on China have prompted unprecedented debate among China’s foreign-policy community. Policy makers and analysts have undertaken serious reviews of other countries’ policies and deliberated on appropriate responses and future policy options. These internal debates offer insight into China’s likely future policy in the South China Sea.

Although China is increasingly criticised for its growing assertiveness, very few Chinese analysts consider the country to have been at fault for the recent tensions and disputes over the South China Sea. They firmly believe that China’s actions were necessary, to protect their country’s legitimate interests, and were predominantly justified reactions to ‘provocations’ by other claimant states.

The prevalent view among Chinese analysts is that the tensions of the past few years can be attributed to collusion between the US and regional claimant states. It is popularly believed that, without Washington’s backing and high-profile policy of ‘returning to Asia’, regional states would not be able to challenge China’s interests in the South China Sea. Many believe that Washington has been simply using the South China Sea issue to pursue a soft containment of China. They argue that supporting countries that have territorial disputes with China is part of Washington’s ‘returning to Asia’ or ‘strategic re-balancing’ strategy in the Asia Pacific. Chinese perceptions and policy pronouncements during the recent stand-off between China and the Philippines illustrate this kind of thinking.

Many Chinese analysts believe that US rhetoric about the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is a strategy to preserve Washington’s freedom to conduct military surveillance activities in China’s exclusive economic zone. Analysts writing about the USNS Impeccable incident in 2009 have suggested that Washington only uses the freedom of navigation argument for strategic and diplomatic gains.

The implication here is that Beijing believes that the South China Sea is as contentious an issue between China and the US, as between China and other claimant states. The fact that China appears to blame other parties for problems in the South China Sea indicates that Beijing is unlikely to seriously reflect on its own policy and actions, or significantly change its South China Sea policies. Most likely, China will continue to be tough on the actions of regional claimants and will attempt to limit the US’s role, but it remains to be seen whether China can in fact have this type of leverage over the US.

In recent years, Chinese commentators have frequently argued that China should abandon its reactive posture in favour of a more proactive stance in exploring and exploiting resources in the South China Sea. Chinese analysts argue that the country cannot indefinitely maintain its low-profile (tao guang yang hui) approach to natural-resource exploitation. With the growth of China’s deep-water oil and gas exploration technologies and its rapidly growing law-enforcement capabilities, these proposals may soon become reality.

The tensions and disputes of recent years have also fostered nationalistic sentiments in China. Chinese netizens have often expressed extremely harsh views about other countries, particularly Vietnam, the Philippines and the US. Social media channels have also been awash with criticism of the Chinese government for its weak stance in the South China Sea issue. A recent Global Times survey indicates that nearly 80 per cent of the Chinese public supports the use of military means to deal with the ‘provocations’ of other states.

None of this bodes well for a moderate Chinese security policy in the South China Sea. But, other factors may very well prevent actual confrontation from breaking out. China’s concerns over its relations with Southeast Asia, its disadvantaged position in its strategic rivalry with the US, and its prioritisation of domestic economic development will likely constrain China from becoming openly confrontational. Beijing seems to understand that the strategic dynamics in East Asia do not favour China and that an overly assertive posture will only further generate suspicion toward China in many regional states. In fact, the majority of Chinese analysts and officials believe that the disputes of the past few years have led to the worsening of China’s regional security environment. Adopting a confrontational posture would only lead to further enhancing the US’s political and security role in the region and the increased involvement of other major powers, such as Japan and India.

This combination of non-confrontation and assertiveness is likely to continue to dominate China’s behaviour in the South China Sea. The rest of the region may see inconsistencies in China’s policy, ranging from constant rhetorical reassurance to heavy handedness towards other claimants’ actions. Despite periodical displays of assertiveness, Beijing will refrain from allowing tensions and conflicts to escalate into a major confrontation. And, under the right conditions, China will not hesitate to undertake damage control by mending fences with relevant parties in ways that are justifiable to its domestic audience.

Li Mingjiang is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the China Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article first appeared here as a RSIS Working Paper No. 239.