With the decision to conduct a Freedom of Navigation operation (FONOP) in the waters around China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, U.S.-Chinese relations appear set to deteriorate in the coming year. Given the likely rise in tensions, especially if the United States conducts additional FONOPS, it is essential that U.S. leaders understand the Chinese perspective, even as they must make clear to Beijing (and others) that they are firmly committed to the principle of freedom of the seas.
Some have attempted to explain China’s approach by comparing it to the Monroe Doctrine. China, they say, is intent on asserting a sphere of influence, in which its interests are accorded primacy.
We should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, as imperial Japan did in the 1930s. In fact, we are already seeing inklings of that policy. For example, Chinese leaders have made it clear they do not think the United States has a right to interfere in disputes over the maritime boundaries of the South China Sea, a strategically important body of water that Beijing effectively claims as its own.
An alternative analogy often drawn likens China to either imperial, Wilhelmine or even Nazi Germany. In this portrayal, China is intent upon expanding its territorial holdings; the islands of the South China Sea are a twenty-first-century version of Alsace-Lorraine, or Danzig.
Missing from both of these attempts to recast China’s actions into more familiar ground is the role of sovereignty in the Chinese conception of its claims.
Beijing does not see its South China Sea activities in the same light as either nineteenth-century America or twentieth-century Germany. In protesting the entry of the USS Lassen into the waters near the artificial island China has built atop Subi Reef, the Chinese used language that makes their concerns quite clear. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang declared that the USS Lassen “illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government.” He added that Beijing “has stressed on many occasions that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters. China’s sovereignty and relevant rights over the South China Sea have been formed over the long course of history.”
Sovereignty as the Central Issue:
The Chinese formulation underscores that, from Beijing’s perspective, the central issue is a basic one of sovereignty and territorial integrity. Chinese leadership since at least Deng Xiaoping has consistently characterized its approach to various maritime disputes in the same way: “Sovereignty is ours; defer disputes; engage in joint development.” When Deng set forth this formulation in the 1980s, the emphasis was on the second two clauses. At the time, he suggested that this issue could be set aside for the next—and perhaps wiser—generation to resolve. In the meantime, China was open to joint exploitation of resources.
But where the emphasis under Deng was on rapidly pushing economic development, the focus under Hu Jintao, and even more under Xi Jinping, has steadily shifted to the first clause: “sovereignty is ours.” Part of this shift is likely rooted in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS required states to file formal declarations of their baselines by May 2009, or else risk losing their rights to seabed and offshore resources. As the various parties to the Spratlys dispute (including not only the PRC and Taiwan, but also Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam) all had economic interests, it behooved them to file formal claims—claims that Beijing sees as jeopardizing its own claims to sovereignty.
But China’s posture as the aggrieved party is not solely rooted in UNCLOS filings. One striking theme that arises in any discussion with Chinese officials regarding the South China Sea is the view that the neighboring states have been encroaching on China’s territories—deliberately. Some of this, as General Fang Fenghui indicated when he visited the United States, is seen as inspired by American encouragement. But as important is the argument that China’s neighbors are exploiting Beijing’s patience and forbearance. Chinese interlocutors note that China has not drilled as many wells, has not built airfields, and did not first expand its islands. The Chinese position is that they have shown restraint in not reacting to these activities—even though they are presumably occurring on Chinese territory.
This is the crux of the matter. For Chinese decision-makers, the South China Sea—both the waters and the islands within it—are and have always been Chinese territory. The neighbors’ actions are not merely alternative claims; they are an effort to amputate a piece of China. In this context, China is not Germany; China is France or Poland.
The same reasoning means that China is not intent upon establishing a sphere of influence over the South China Sea, in a modern version of the Monroe Doctrine. The United States dominated the Gulf of Mexico and Central America but made no claim that Haiti or Guatemala was part of the United States itself. China, on the other hand, has made clear in its behavior, if not in its enunciated policies, that it views the waters and islands of the South China Sea as part of its sovereign territory. Hence, Chinese construction of artificial islands is perfectly within its rights, since it occurs within Chinese territory; China has no more need to consult with others over such construction than it would if it were building a new expressway in Beijing.
Sovereignty as a Core Interest:
The situation is further exacerbated by the overall Chinese attitude toward sovereignty. There is probably no greater supporter of the Westphalian system of nation-states, and the attendant adherence to the sanctity of borders, than the PRC. It is the basis for China’s claims to not only the South China Sea, but Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet. Given the Chinese experience with the “century of humiliation,” when China confronted the real potential of dismemberment by the colonial powers, such a perspective should not be surprising.
Consequently, China views sovereignty, along with territorial integrity, as a “core interest.” Dai Bingguo, then state councilor for foreign affairs, stated in 2009 that for China, core interests are those that touch upon how the state is governed—i.e., the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party, issues of territorial integrity and national sovereignty, and the ability of the PRC to develop its economy and society. Some Chinese and American analysts question whether the Chinese specifically used the term “core interest” in connection with the South China Sea, but China’s behavior suggests that it views the region as, in fact, a core interest.
This view is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Indeed, China’s growing military capability would suggest the exact opposite. In the 1980s and 1990s, China’s military power was exceedingly limited; at the time, it was said that China had the world’s best obsolete equipment. In that context, it was not in China’s interest to press sovereignty claims even in the “near seas,” as its air and naval forces were largely limited to coastal operations.
Today, however, China’s military is a far more substantial force. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) easily outmatches any navy in Southeast Asia, especially among the rival claimants. Moreover, it can count upon the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the Second Artillery to support it in any “near seas” or even “far seas” operations. The PRC is therefore far more able to uphold its sovereignty claims than in the past.
At the same time, its interest in the South China Sea has assumed even more of a security aspect. Hainan Island, an undisputed part of China, is rapidly becoming one of the most heavily militarized locations in the country. It already hosts a carrier berth and submarine pens for China’s seagoing nuclear deterrent and its attack submarines. It is also the home of China’s newest spaceport, and multiple airbases are located there as well. China has a clear interest in keeping foreign interlopers out of the adjoining South China Sea.
An Expansive View of Sovereignty:
This Chinese perspective on its sovereign rights over the South China Sea, of course, poses a real challenge for not only China’s neighbors, but the United States. While China believes that its historical claims justify its view that the entire South China Sea is Chinese territory, this ignores the claims of other states whose people have traversed its waters and used its islands for extended historical periods as well. Just as important, it fundamentally contradicts the principle of freedom of the seas. Some $5.3 trillion in commerce travels these sea lanes annually, heightening the potential global impact of China’s claims.
But the problem goes beyond the waters encompassed within the so-called 9-dash line (now 10 dashes). Just as the South China Sea is not only about some reefs and spits of land, China’s approach to sovereignty affects more than just that body of water. Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in declaring various territories as actually part of China is mirrored by its attitudes toward other global common spaces.
Thus, China has undertaken a sustained effort to establish sovereignty in cyberspace, as it has sought to shift Internet governance to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), where only nation-states are represented. Chinese officials claim that censorship of the Internet is perfectly justified, since it is up to each state to administer the Internet within its borders. Along similar lines, Chinese leaders such as Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping have both sounded the tocsin about the need to defend Chinese “cultural security” from foreign encroachment. This position was codified in the new PRC National Security Law, where it is noted that the state has a responsibility for cultural security.
In short, China is intent upon defining its sovereignty in extraordinarily expansive terms, not only in the area of the South China Sea, but across a variety of domains, both physical and virtual. These definitions contradict much of the current Western, and even global, understandings underpinning international commerce, whether it is freedom of the seas or the free flow of information. In essence, China is challenging the international order, not by seeking “a place in the sun” or lebensraum, but by redefining and extending the reach of the state.
The American response to this revisionism, both in the South China Sea and elsewhere, will therefore have far larger repercussions than just the immediate disputes. Beijing is waiting to see whether its efforts will be accepted or rebuffed. Just as importantly, it will mark the first step in determining whether Chinese or American principles will define the governance of global common spaces in the coming decades.
Originally published in The National Interest.