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Foreign Policy

China Struggles with South China Sea Priorities: Sovereignty, Neighbors & Ties with the U.S.

Jul 12 , 2016

The basic logic of interaction between a rising power and an incumbent power is worth examination. Throughout human history, rising powers tend to benefit repeatedly from limited pushes, therefore they are prone to lack the willingness to reduce the momentum toward an ultimate conflict. Meanwhile, incumbent powers, with their strength in decline, tend to be forced to shrink, or in fact make limited concessions, but they may eventually find no more room for further concession and determine to fight. Rising powers are inclined to disregard or make light of what Karl Von Clausewitz called “culminating point of victory”, incumbent powers, on the other hand, are inclined to ignore or procrastinate defining “bottom lines for concession”. Such a scenario may begin to emerge on the South China Sea issue.

Sources: C.I.A., NASA, China Maritime Safety Administration

China has an overall strategic environment and strategic tasks that are much bigger than the South China Sea issue. It should make its best effort to deliberate on and handle the South China Sea issue in the context of the country’s overall strategic situation. In such a strategic situation, a matter of outstanding significance concerning Chinese foreign relations and diplomacy is, no matter how multifarious and complicated the reasons are, China’s relations with neighboring countries have been less than desirable in recent years. At the same time, China-US relations, whose maintenance has cost the country dearly over the years, have also shown some frustrating, disappointing aspects. The two aspects have a lot to do with each other: The turbulences and negative upheavals in China-US ties derived largely from its periphery – the Korean Peninsula, Japan, particularly the South China Sea. China should proceed from the perspective of the strategic situation, make peace with neighboring countries, finally persuade and force the US to accept China’s role in Asia as well as its strategic status as a world power.

One general principle on the South China Sea should be China’s strategic principle, that is the principle of safeguarding rights and preserving stability. It is important to safeguard Chinese rights, but it is also very important to preserve stability there. If a lot has been done in the past on safeguarding interests, more emphasis must be placed on preserving stability in the future.

Whatever happens, it is necessary to prevent drastic escalation of strategic competition and rivalry between China and the US, and to continue taking all-round improvement in relations with Southeast Asian nations as a very significant component of Chinese diplomacy. China should not only improve relations with continental Southeast Asian countries, but also try to enhance weak links and maintain decent ties with maritime nations in the region. On the South China Sea, China needs to upgrade its military capabilities, and consolidate sovereign presence. On the other hand, it would be extremely undesirable if the South China Sea issue results in a major China-US conflict, and at the same time ruins China’s relations with maritime nations in Southeast Asia.

There are obvious contradictions between the fierce and complex South China Sea disputes and promoting a sizable majority of China’s “strategic-economic” needs. Vietnam, Myanmar and India are very significant in economic, geopolitical and geo-strategic senses, and the fact is that they (India in particular) harbor the strongest suspicions and vigilances regarding China, as well as the poor or very poor states of their ties with China. The fundamental problem or task for China in promoting the “maritime silk road” and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor, and handling the South China Sea issue as well as its territorial disputes with India is to try to reduce their doubts and dissatisfaction. An outstanding current problem is that the South China Sea disputes and tensions on China-Indian borders have resulted in increased suspicion and discontent. China is thus facing a tough conundrum: Which should be given priority status, which is easier to handle, the maritime silk road, Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor, the South China Sea issue, or the China-India territorial dispute? Compared with the Eurasia Silk Road economic belt, the maritime silk road and Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar economic corridor have bigger, longer-lasting geo-strategic significances for China. China must come up with a sensible order of strategic priority for such concerns.

Since the spring of 2016, considering that the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration is about to deliver a ruling on the Philippines case against China over the South China Sea, and that the US, Japan, EU and the majority of maritime nations in Southeast Asia will further question and deny legitimacy of Chinese claims of both maritime sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, the Chinese government has begun to go out of its way to pursue foreign governments’ endorsement of its basic stance on the South China Sea issue, like it has done over the years regarding the Taiwan issue.

In a short time, China has managed to convince a number of countries to support the proposal that the South China Sea disputes should be handled through bilateral consultations between countries directly involved in the disputes. However, despite the impression media headlines in China have left, this only indicates that governments of those countries endorse or support one element in the Chinese government’s basic position on the South China Sea issue, not necessarily all elements. It is quite unlikely in the foreseeable future to make the majority of countries openly endorse the rest of the Chinese position, such as the Chinese connotations of the nine-dash line per se, as well as such assumptions as China’s sovereignty claims are based on historical rights, etc. China will find itself engaged in a long-term struggle to fulfill its wishes in the South China Sea.

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