(From the National Interest)
By Ryan Martinson
Chinese leaders are torn by two conflicting goals: The desire to regain “lost” islands and waters and a need to maintain stable relations with neighbors and America
During a July 2015 television news show, Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong was asked to define China’s strategy in the South China Sea. After first declining to answer the question—“I can’t tell this to outsiders. I can’t tell you.”—the raspy-voiced professor quickly found a compromise between discretion and the academic’s inherent need to expatiate. With fellow guest, naval analyst Li Jie, nodding on, Shi described China’s strategy in four characters: 步步为营 (bubu weiying): “Building fortifications after each new advance.”
Professor Shi’s image of an army on the march, carefully consolidating its position after new territory is gained, is only the latest in a long line of metaphors used to depict China’s recent expansion in maritime East Asia. Most are products of American minds. They range from the sartorial to the salacious. Some, like “salami slicing,” are standard terms used by political scientists for decades. Many will doubtless serve as fodder for future scholars seeking to understand both the observers and the observed.
Almost all of these metaphors are descriptive. That is, they are largely based on analysis of patterns of behavior. As such, they shed little light on how Chinese policymakers may actually think about their options. To understand that, one must begin by recognizing the colossal contradiction that sits at the heart of China’s approach to its maritime disputes.
The Weight of Desire:
Chinese policymakers, citing “international law,” claim that the country is entitled to jurisdiction over three million square kilometers of ocean. However, so the Chinese narrative goes, nearly half of this “maritime territory” is contested by other states. With Taiwan quiescent, it is no wonder then that China’s disputes dominate the thinking of those who craft the country’s peacetime maritime strategy. Read more