The Paradox of China's Naval Strategy
by Roger Baker and Zhixing Zhang
Reviewed by John Sylvester
The scattered islets and reefs of the South China Sea seem an unlikely source of conflict, but, as usual, sensitivities over sovereignty produce international tensions. This article, written for STRATFOR by one of its vice presidents and a former Chinese dissident, describes how, for China, “control over the South China Sea is more than just a practical matter and goes to the center of Beijing’s foreign policy dilemma: how to assert its historical claims while maintaining the non-confrontational foreign policy established by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1980. … [W]ith the Chinese public hostile to any real or perceived territorial concessions on Beijing’s part, Deng’s quiet approach is no longer an option.”
The authors note that, despite past episodes of Chinese fleets sailing abroad, Beijing traditionally saw its navy as a coastal defense force. Now, however, “for China to secure its economic strength and parlay that into stronger global influence, the development of a more proactive naval strategy became imperative.”
Chinese claims are pictured on the article’s map by a so-called “nine dash line” inherited from an “eleven dash line” from a 1947 map of the Kuomintang government. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei have all filed their claims in the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, forcing China to file its counterclaims and thus “raising alarm in neighboring countries of what was seen as an outright push for regional hegemony.”
The authors see the Chinese authorities as caught between a desire to develop stronger multilateral relations to prevent its neighbors from turning to the U.S. for protection and a need to demonstrate to the public vigor in defending national interests, and thus angering and frightening those very neighbors.