For decades, Chinese leaders have followed Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of “hiding one’s capacities and biding one’s time.” Since Xi Jinping came to power, however, Chinese policymakers have been employing slogans that suggest the adoption of a more assertive strategy, emphasizing China’s “dream of a strong nation” and the need to “actively strive to accomplish something.” Nowhere is this new and more active doctrine more apparent, and potentially dangerous, than in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Since the end of the Chinese Civil War, Beijing has laid claim to the entire South China Sea, all the way down the coasts of Vietnam and the Philippines to the shores of Borneo 1,700 miles away. A glance at a Chinese map of the “nine-dash line” delineating Beijing’s claims shows what a vast area this is. China is not just claiming open water, however. Over five trillion dollars’ worth of shipping passes through the South China Sea each year, and it is full of productive fishing grounds and potentially vast energy resources that nations might be willing to fight for. The strategic value and importance of the area is clear.
This is why China’s increasingly provocative actions in the South China Sea are so alarming to its neighbors and to the United States. The U.S. has called on all parties to the dispute to avoid actions that might exacerbate tensions, but China has continued to use its Navy and Coast Guard vessels, as well as other non-military assets, to harass the vessels of other nations, install oil rigs in disputed waters, and construct artificial island outposts that form what our Pacific Fleet Commander has memorably dubbed the “Great Wall of Sand.” The remarkable growth in the size and capability of China’s fleet of “white hull” paramilitary vessels—which is now larger than the Coast Guard fleets of Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, combined—and the striking speed and extent its land reclamation efforts suggest that China is not going to cease its efforts any time soon. Indeed, it seems clear that Beijing is pursuing a deliberate and well-resourced strategy to achieve de facto control, as a precursor to sovereignty, over the South China Sea.
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