It is tempting to say that the South China Sea is heating up again, but it has been oscillating between a simmer and a slow boil for so long that it is getting hard to tell. Only one thing is clear: those who oppose Chinese moves and Chinese claims are converging on a consensus that Beijing’s actions have become intolerable and that countermeasures are in order. The United States, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all clearly exhibiting balancing behavior. The US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force have stepped up “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS), both on the water and in the air. Senior officials are increasingly bluntly characterizing Chinese actions as aggressive and destabilizing. Both bilateral and multilateral diplomacy have all but ground to a halt. The Philippines is suing. Even academics are issuing veiled threats.
From a non-Chinese perspective, all of this seems natural and appropriate. China’s breakneck land reclamation projects are without question a major jolt to the status quo. The fact that China’s new artificial islands are bristling with military infrastructure such as unnecessarily long runways and advanced radar installations when Beijing denies “militarizing” the South China Sea seems clearly dishonest and deceptive, as does the fact that reclamation efforts continued long after official assurances that they had stopped. The fact that China continues to insist that its claims are “indisputable” while refusing to clarify or adjudicate them strikes the region’s other stakeholders as haughty, revisionist, and sinister. Small wonder the response is balancing and deterrence. If history teaches us anything, it is that failing to stand up to opportunistic aggressors carries a heavy price tag indeed.
But what if we are reading China all wrong?
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that everything we read as evidence of Chinese revisionism, exceptionalism, and aggressiveness is, in fact, evidence of uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety. How would this interpretive frame compare with the revisionist/exceptionalist/aggressiveness frame in terms of making sense of the facts? Would it draw to our attention features of Chinese behavior that we might otherwise miss? Would it incline us to approach China differently?
It is worth bearing in mind that the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party depends very heavily upon its ability to deliver certain tangible and intangible goods to the Chinese people. It also depends upon an aura of benevolent infallibility—hence Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, intolerance of criticism and dissent, Internet censorship, and various earnest if artless pro-regime propaganda campaigns.
Among the tangible goods the Chinese regime must deliver to maintain legitimacy are economic opportunity and an increasing material quality of life. These are under threat from declining growth rates and environmental challenges (among other things). The intangible goods it must deliver include national self-respect and international prestige.
The South China Sea implicates both types of goods. Economically, its maritime resources (particularly fisheries) are vital to the livelihoods of tens of millions of Chinese. Symbolically, long- and strongly-held beliefs about China’s historic maritime and territorial rights have become increasingly central to China’s identity. Politically, it does not matter whether these beliefs are well-founded; what matters is that virtually no one in China questions them. So leaders in Beijing cannot afford to do anything that smacks of weakness or irresolution in the face of international pressure. Even international pressure is dangerous. It is hard to maintain an image of benevolent infallibility when the neighbors are increasingly vocally calling you reckless and malevolent.
So Chinese leaders are caught between a domestic rock and an international hard place. And they know that the situation is delicate. Things could go wrong very easily very quickly.
What China has done in the South China Sea fits both an aggressiveness and an insecurity frame. When seen in an aggressiveness frame, China’s rapid land reclamation program looks like an attempt to create facts on the ground and put China into a position to assert its dominance. This is how outsiders almost always interpret it. When seen in an insecurity frame, it looks directed primarily at a domestic audience that expects Beijing to stand up for what it sees as China’s sovereign rights. This is how a few in the West and many in the Chinese policy community see it.
What China has not done fits only with the insecurity frame. It has made no effort to dislodge other claimants’ facilities; it has made no claims that its artificial islands confer any new maritime rights; in contrast to hyperbolic media coverage in the West, it has made no effort to block or interdict FONOPs; it has issued no “threats” to passing ships and planes, merely hysterical instructions and entreaties; and while it has railed against “provocations,” it has drawn no lines in the sand but instead has called for calm, warned explicitly of inadvertent conflict, and actively engaged with Americans and others in behind-the-scenes confidence building measures designed to reduce the danger. This is exactly what one would expect of a regime that does not wish to appear weak at home but wants desperately to minimize the risks of international blowback.
China saves special venom for the Philippines, whose case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration threatens to pull the rug out from underneath Beijing’s calculated ambiguity about the nature and basis of its claims and upset its delicate balancing act between domestic and international pressures. A confident, aggressive China would not care. A worried, insecure China would.
The other claimants and stakeholders in the South China Sea have their own domestic and international pressures, too, of course. None of this is an argument for simply indulging China. But it is an argument for avoiding hyping a “China threat” and for making one’s point and defending one’s interests in the least ostentatious way possible. US and allied ships and planes can traverse the South China Sea without fanfare, and without journalists aboard, at no cost to the intended political or international legal signal. The Philippines can resist triumphing at China’s expense when the inevitable arbitration decision comes down in its favor. Senior officials can start talking more about the merits of cooperation and the importance of stability, and less about the importance of standing up to Chinese aggression.
Taking the high road in the South China Sea has one final crucial advantage: it weakens the hand of China’s hawks, and strengthens the hand of China’s doves. We all too easily forget that China, just like any other country, has its own internal debates and bureaucratic rivalries.
If history teaches us anything in addition to the folly of appeasing opportunistic aggressors, it is the danger of making anxious people desperate and encouraging belligerence.