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 US 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 authorisation 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 the Americans aren’t going to want to go to war over this, no matter how much they disapprove.
As the Chinese aphorism has it, you need a long line to catch a big fish. More crudely, we might say that in China’s long game, short-term pain is the price of long-term gain. The very concrete expression of China’s grand strategy means that it is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which any political leader in China could now risk being associated with it giving up its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Having spent the last few days in the company of some of China’s smartest foreign policy specialists, it is also clear that Chinese intellectuals are also highly supportive of this policy and have few doubts about its legitimacy.
On the contrary, at a recent conference on China’s regional policy in Beijing, it was striking how little debate there was about the nature of China’s policies. The focus was almost exclusively on the impact they were having on China’s neighbours.
Consequently, there was much talk about the “hedging strategies” of Japan, South Korea and the ASEAN states, but no discussion at all about the basis or development of China’s own policies. At one level, no doubt, this is because nobody seems to have a clear idea of exactly who does make China’s foreign policy in many areas.
At another level, though, it reflects a broadly held consensus throughout the country about the legitimate nature of China’s claims. What matters for most is how to pursue China’s national goals, not who formulated them.
Perhaps the discussions in such forums are somewhat constrained by the possible presence of party members who might take a dim view of disloyal comments, especially in front of foreigners. The intellectual atmosphere is not quite as free and easy as it has been in this regard. But even in private discussions with old friends, it is hard to find people who are critical of China’s policy in the South China Sea.
Some of the brightest young scholars in China take great delight in reeling off exhaustive examples of American duplicity and double standards of when the US has taken no notice of international law, never mind norms. American actions have not been constrained by “the international community” in part because of America’s hegemonic position, the argument goes, but in part because there was precious little any one could do to stop them acting unilaterally. George W. Bush is the much-invoked case-in-point.
Whatever the merits of such arguments, one lesson seems to have been taken to heart. Great and powerful countries may not be able to do anything they want, but they can do a lot more than weak ones. It is precisely because China has become so much more materially consequential, both militarily and economically, that its leaders clearly feel that they can take more calculated risks.
At a time when the US is entering one of its seemingly interminable presidential election cycles, China’s leaders may also judge that this is a good time to take important incremental steps on the long march to regional hegemony. When the US economy remains fragile and dependent on China for capital inflows, they may also think that the US will not want to risk destabilising the ever-skittish markets.
For a country that measures its history in millennia, long games may make a good deal of sense – despite the short-term risks.