War between China and the United States over the South China Seas (SCS) is imminent. This is one example of the alarmist headlines that emblazon many western foreign policy journals and news articles following every incident between the U.S. and China.

Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia offered his warnings during his keynote speech at the “New China Challenge” conference in October 2018.

He highlighted the issue from the western perspective and called for a third approach aside from “capitulation or confrontation.”But how does China see the South China Sea issue? Are China’s interests inside the Nine Dash Line considered a ‘core value’ and something that China is willing to go to war over?

How does China’s interest in the SCS compare to those related to its “One Belt-One Road” initiative? How does President Xi see these issues? This analysis evaluates these questions from the Chinese perspective.

On September 28, 2018, China surpassed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as the longest surviving communist state. China sees itself as an ascendant power and Russia in decline. China seeks to expand its influence in the Asian region and eventually emerge as a global power, equalling or exceeding the influence of the United States.

Many economists project that China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will surpass the United States by 2025. Binnendijk compares China’s economy to a speeding bicycle, provided it continues to maintain access to adequate natural resources, energy and trade routes, it will continue to expand.

However, if one or more of these factors become unduly stressed, then the Chinese economy is in great danger of collapsing and it could drive the economy to a halt. Identifying this need to support the economy well into the next decade, President Xi Jinping has implemented a “One Belt-One Road” (OBOR) plan for securing the economic future of China.

China has made ‘excessive maritime claims’ according to many western nations and regional rivals within the South China Sea resulting in many disputed claims, largely perceived as part of its pursuit of natural resources. China has also moved forward with enlarging and militarising many of these islands and atolls in efforts to solidify and expand its regional influence (see Figure 1).

All of these initiatives place China in direct competition with neighbouring peers.

Figure 1
Figure 1: China’s “Nine Dash Line” and Territorial Claims in the South China Seas.

Like most countries, China has a set of core, vital, and principal interests. Chinese core interests are those with which it will “never waver, compromise, or yield”, haggle or bargain, and “must stand firm, be clear, have the courage to fight and never surrender these principles.”

These core interests are considered non-negotiable and include sovereignty issues like Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Vital interests are those that China considers as irrevocably necessary to the safety and survival of the state, which include political and economic independence. Principal interests on the other hand are negotiable and are targeted to enhance economic trade, foreign relations and friendly ties with regional partners.

Is China’s expansion in the South China Seas a core or vital interest? Western analysts often see the answer as a ‘yes.’ However, from China’s perspective and Xi Jingping’s in particular, it appears that China may be less inclined for military action in defence of its SCS interests than previously thought. China first started to discuss its core interests regularly starting in 2004.

Under President Hu’s regime, State Councillor and Foreign Affairs expert Dai Bingguo declared China’s “core interests included maintaining the socialist system, national security, territorial integrity, reunification with Taiwan and economic development.”

On April 27, 2013, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported in an interview with Japan’s NHK news network “that Chinese officials repeatedly told him during his visit to Beijing earlier in the week that the Senkaku islands are ‘one of China’s core interests.’” This would be confirmed later in the week by a Chinese Foreign Ministry official. It is important to note that this occurred before Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. For Xi, the South China Sea issue, while a principal interest, is less important to the successful execution of his long-term plans and economic policies for China.

Prior to Xi’s election, China had pursued a two-decade foreign policy of ‘keeping a low profile and bidding time. ’Xi sees himself as a strong leader, from a long line of great Chinese leaders and has moved China towards a policy of “striving for achievement.”

Early evidence of Xi’s economic plans occurred at China’s Periphery Diplomacy Initiative in November 2013 where he called upon China to “strive for obtaining an excellent peripheral environment for our country’s development, bring even more benefits of our country’s development to peripheral countries, and realise common development.”

A year later, he would make a similar appeal to Asian leaders at the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). This speech laid the ground work for his One Belt-One Road initiative. (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2: China’s One Belt-One Road.

During his opening speech at the G20 summit in 2016, President Xi again called for a course change towards a new global economy that incorporates the following four keystones: (1) innovation, (2) openness, (3) inter-connectedness and (4) inclusivity. In these and subsequent speeches, Xi has sought to highlight that OBOR is a regional initiative that will benefit all countries within its scope, not just China. Xi sees OBOR as his legacy and will be the driving factor in China’s emergence from a regional hegemon to a truly global power.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), if a nation has territorial control over an island or mainland that borders the sea, then that nation may claim a Territorial Sea (TS) of no more than 12 nautical miles (nm); an Exclusive Economic Zone of no more than 200 nm and a continental shelf of no more than 200 nm.

As shown in figure 1, many of China’s maritime claims far exceed these allowed ranges. There is no question that China has become more assertive in expanding its sphere of influence in the South China Sea since President Xi took office, most notably its exertion of the Nine-Dash Line as territorial waters based on historical maritime claims.

Several incidents highlight China’s aggressive stance in the region since Xi’s ascendance to the presidency in violation of UNCLOS.

First, in May of 2014, the China National Offshore Oil Company, a state run entity, deployed the HYSY-981 offshore oilrig accompanied by several military vessels to a disputed region near the Parcel islands and an area inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

This move was not successful from the economic perspective as it did not result in any economic gains. Second, China has occupied, expanded, and militarised several of the Spratly Islands which are outside the UNCLOS recognised control of China as shown in figure 1. Third, in 2009, five Chinese vessels surrounded the USNS Impeccable, a research ship operating approximately 75 miles south of Hainan Island inside China’s EEZ.

The ship was conducting routine seafloor mapping and submarine tracking activities. China saw the U.S. vessel as violating its sovereignty and directly challenged its presence, forcing the ship to take collision avoidance measures. USNS Impeccable would return the next day escorted by a U.S. Navy destroyer. This event immediately sparked harsh criticism on both sides for the other’s actions, but it should be noted that UNCLOS does not regulate military activities within an EEZ.

Chinese scholars have laid out an historical case for China’s claim to the Nine Dash Line and a legal basis for its actions in the South China Sea (see for example Keyuan, and Xinchang and Yee.)

Despite this, the present analysis contends that the South China Sea is not currently a ‘core interest’ for which China will seek to defend with unwavering commitment. For example, Xue Gong’s research shows that several Central State-Owned Enterprises (CSOEs) have lobbied for national policies to expand Chinese economic interests in the SCS, particularly in areas of tourism, oil exploration and infrastructure development.

The author argues that China will continue to support these state-run agencies as “long as business interests converge with the country’s national interests.”China does have economic interests in the SCS, but they largely come from a desire to be the defining influence in the region as opposed to acquiescing and allowing that privilege to remain in the hands of the United States.

In regards to the SCS issue, China and Xi will continue to “remain vigilant against the incursion of foreign influence in issue areas as disparate as a variety of international regimes, even if it realises that it cannot deal with complex problems by itself.” China has maintained bilateral relations with those nations with which it has territorial disputes, many going back centuries.

This is why China rejects decisions by outside global organisations as being shadow arbiters of U.S. interests. Recent legal decisions on maritime claims against China, as well as its ratification of UNCLOS has superseded any historical claims to territories in the South China Sea. As such, China is facing a difficult task of convincing other parties of the legitimacy of its maritime claims. Xi realises this and will limit provocative actions in the SCS to those that do not threaten the stability of the region.

However, actions that threaten to contain China or challenge his “strong man image” among the domestic population are likely to provoke Xi. China wants a stable region to facilitate its economic development under OBOR. An increasingly unstable region threatens that success. As far as feasibility, Xi can achieve much greater success through OBOR than through the SCS issue.

China, under President Xi, has undertaken an historic task to expand its economic influence across half the world through its OBOR initiative.

China sees it is safer to pursue economic advances under the New Silk Road (OBOR),which are seen as beneficial by China’s partners, than to push for aggressive expansion in the SCS over which the United States is most certainly going to challenge.

China will take advantage in the SCS where it can, but it will prioritise OBOR over the SCS for the foreseeable future. Ever the long game player, China will bid its time until its position for expansion in the South China Sea is more tenable.