Analysis & Opinions - Herald Sun

Chinese Content to Play the Long Game

| July 11, 2017

Recent remarks from US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remind us that competition in the South China Sea is brewing.

From the perspective of Washington, a rising China is seeking to undermine the rule-based international order.

In contrast, as it looks out from its own coastline, China sees China's seas. In the waters along its border, China is demanding that others, starting with the United States, accept its predominance as surely as they have accepted America's special provenance in the Caribbean.

As realistic students of history, Chinese leaders recognise that the role the US has played since World War II as the guardian of regional stability has been essential to China's rise. But they believe that as the tide that brought the US to Asia recedes, America must leave with it. As President Xi Jinping told a gathering of Eurasian leaders in 2014: "It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia." The attempt to persuade the US to adjust to this new reality has been most intense in the South China Sea. An area approximately the size of the Caribbean and bordered by China, Taiwan, and six Southeast Asian nations, the sea includes several hundred islands, reefs, and other features, many of which are under water at high tide.

China asserts exclusive ownership of the entire South China Sea and has redrawn the map with a "nine-dash line" that encompasses 90 per cent of the territory. China has also undertaken major construction projects on features throughout the sea, building outposts on seven different features in the Spratly Islands. According to the Pentagon, China has reclaimed more than 3200 acres of land in recent years, compared with just 50 acres by all other claimants.

As part of its efforts, China has built ports, airstrips, radar facilities, lighthouses, and support buildings, all of which expand the reach of its ships and military aircraft and allow Beijing to blanket the region with radar and surveillance assets.

As the contest in the South China Sea unfolds, it will be shaped by the basic strategic assumptions and blind spots of both the United States and China. That means America will continue to play a game of chess while China rearranges the stones on its weiqi board, working methodically to effect a gradual yet overwhelming change in this nearby theatre.

To better assess the course the contest will take, we can draw clues from Chinese civilisation, culture and strategic traditions.

First, it seems clear that China will bring a long-term perspective to the stand-off with the US in the South China Sea, steadily accruing advantages, confident that it will outlast the Americans in the region. While the US may at times be focused on events in Asia, Chinese leaders will expect Americans to eventually pivot back to the Middle East, Europe, or problems at home.

It is also safe to assume that Beijing will be ruthlessly realistic in assessing the military correlation of forces between China and the US. Because it will take at least another decade or more for China's military capabilities to fully match those of the US, Beijing will be cautious and prudent about any lethal use of force against the US. Instead, by gradually changing facts on the ground and adapting to resistance it encounters, the Chinese will win by the accumulation of advantages.

Furthermore, China will be "strategic" with Chinese characteristics, treating military force as a subordinate instrument in the orchestration of its foreign policy, which seeks not victory in battle but the achievement of national objectives. It will bolster diplomatic and economic connections with its neighbors, deepening their dependency on China, and use economic leverage to encourage (or coerce) co-operation on other issues. In doing so, it hopes to increase its influence while also undermining America's ties to its neighbors.

Although China traditionally has viewed war as a last resort, should it conclude that long-term trend lines are no longer moving in its favour and that it is losing bargaining power, it could initiate a limited military conflict to attempt to reverse the trends. As research by the political scientist Taylor Fravel has shown, China has shown a preference for military force against opponents of comparable or greater strength, while preferring to negotiate with weaker adversaries.

In sum, as long as developments in the South China Sea are generally moving in China's favor, it appears unlikely to use military force. But if trends in the correlation of forces should shift against it, particularly at a moment of domestic political instability, China could initiate a limited military conflict, even against a more powerful state like the US.

For now, however, China is likely to avoid direct confrontations and tolerate America's symbolic actions in the South China Sea, all the while building up its forces and creating new facts on the ground.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Chinese Content to Play the Long Game.” Herald Sun, July 11, 2017.