Is China Playing A Long Game In The South China Sea?

By Mark Beeson , Professor of International Politics at University of Western Australia.

China’s construction of new islands in the South China Sea has attracted a great deal of entirely predictable criticism and controversy. Surely no-one connected with this decision can be surprised at this outcome. One assumes that China’s military planners run just the same sorts of simulations and contingency exercises as their counterparts in the West.

Whoever signed off on the reclamation activities that have caused such consternation in the U.S. and South-East Asia must have known what they were getting themselves into.

This raises a number of important questions. First, who authorised a process that could ultimately lead China into further diplomatic – possibly even military – conflict? Given the possible gravity of the consequences it is difficult to imagine that such actions could have been taken without the direct approval of Xi Jinping. Xi is now routinely referred to as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, if not Mao. No one is going to initiate such a high-profile, symbolically freighted policy without authorization from the very top.

The second question to ask is whether this decision was taken in the full knowledge that it was bound to be badly received – especially in the short term. If so, has the judgement been made that the fuss will eventually die down but the facts on the ground – or in this case, the water – will transform the material basis of the region’s competing territorial claims to China’s enduring long-term advantage?

My guess is that this is precisely what has happened. China’s most senior leaders may have – rightly – concluded that the South-East Asian nations are unlikely to offer serious resistance to their plans singly,  much less collectively. They may also have made the much more contentious and consequential judgement that Americans aren’t going to want to go to war over this, no matter how much they disapprove.

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Andrea Calosur 4 years ago Member's comment

China is clearly not using her brains, or does she have any? her supposed military might is as crumbly as her cheap products, and her billions in human population will just be to fertilize the earth.

Pert Cabatana 4 years ago Member's comment

don't forget the other components of the equation: Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, India, Indonesia. We don't have to limit ourselves to US and ASEAN.