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South China Sea: Does Xi have a grand strategy?

South China Sea: Does Xi have a grand strategy?
Published 13 Jan 2015   Follow @JakobsonLinda

I am grateful to several people for commenting on my Lowy Institute Report China's Unpredictable Maritime Security Actors. To date I have received detailed and substantive feedback in over 40 emails, more than I usually do after publishing. In addition, The Interpreter has published posts by Bonnie Glaser, Julian Snelder, Jingchao Peng and Michael McDevitt. Ryan Martinson wrote a detailed critique of the report for The Diplomat.

I will here comment on the posts by Glaser, Peng and McDevitt (I hope to later respond to Martinson separately). It appears that my differences with Glaser and Peng boil down to terminology. In fact, many comments I have received focus on my use of 'grand plan' and 'grand strategy'. It is evident that I should have from the outset defined the terms.

In the report I write that there is no evidence of a central government-approved 'grand plan' that mandates different actors coercing other claimants in a tailored way towards a mutual goal. The report's executive summary states the same thing but uses the term 'grand strategy'.

Glaser and Peng both acknowledge that bureaucratic competition and lack of coordination among various maritime security actors contribute to tension and uncertainty in the South China Sea, but they question my argument about the lack of a grand strategy. From my point of view they – and others who have sent feedback privately – have misunderstood my text.

Of course I am to blame if I have failed to convey my meaning. I can only repeat that I have not found evidence of a central government-approved grand plan or Xi Jinping-approved grand strategy which spells out, step-by-step, how various actors should behave, using coercion or any other method, to reach a clearly defined goal.

I have not stated that Xi Jinping's long-term and overall goal – if he could decide the course of history single-handedly – is not for China to dominate the South China Sea. So I agree with Glaser's concluding sentence: 'Strengthening China's control over the South China Sea is part of (Xi's) "China Dream" of rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.' I also endorse Peng's argument that 'Beijing's overall strategic objective is to advance Beijing's control of the ocean to the best of its capacity.' The expression 'overall strategic objective' best captures Xi's intention, in my view. I didn't use that term in my report or discuss what China's strategic intentions are because that is the focus of my next report in the MacArthur Foundation-funded research project, a co-authored piece with Rory Medcalf. [fold]

In fact, I recently said at the 14th Stockholm China Forum that in the long run, and if China is not deterred, and if its rise continues (three conditions), China can be expected to persistently, reef-by-reef and shoal-by-shoal, strengthen its position in the South China Sea until one day in the distant future its dominance will simply be a fact. (Chinese colleagues dismiss my concern that at that point China would dictate the terms of resource extraction, saying that from a position of strength China will negotiate with others on co-developing resources. I have my doubts.)

Back to the lack of a grand plan or strategy: barring the confusion over terminology, I stand by my argument that, at this point in history, vaguely formulated guidelines from the central government are what lower levels of government and innumerable other non-government maritime security actors have to go by when they decide on concrete actions and policies. Xi has shown the direction (his 'overall strategic objective'), but he has not spelled out specific guidelines about how stability must be maintained while at the same time safeguarding sovereignty. This gives many kinds of actors with many kinds of agendas quite substantial maneuver room to decide on the course of action and the kind of policies to pursue. For reasons I lay out in the report, there are both political and financial motivations for various actors to staunchly advocate protecting maritime rights and strengthen 'rights consciousness'. Hence, China's actions in the maritime domain will continue to be unsystematic and organic, and not part of a well thought-out 'grand strategy.'

I do want to emphasise, however, that the word 'chaos' or 'chaotic' does not appear anywhere in the report. I do not view Chinese maritime security decision-making as chaotic.

This brings me to an observation made by Michael McDevitt. On the basis of Xi's willingness to make politically 'courageous' moves in his anti-corruption campaign, McDevitt questions my argument that Xi and other top leaders find it difficult to publicly disagree with officials or entities that announce or execute counterproductive stances associated with 'safeguarding China's sovereignty'. This is an important and possibly a valid point, which I have contemplated while watching one senior official after another being investigated. Nevertheless, on the basis of discussions this past September and November in Beijing about the anti-corruption drive, I came to the conclusion that there are different dynamics at play. The 'rights consciousness' movement (which Xi himself has spurred on) is so strong that it does at least to a degree deter Xi from going against the tide on matters involving sovereignty. Obviously, time will tell if I am mistaken.

Finally, I do not claim that China's maritime actors can behave in any way they choose. Xi's guidelines box them in. As I have written in The Australian, it is entirely possible that Xi approves of most (or all) of the actions taken in China's name. My point is that Xi is not deciding on myriad actions; numerous maritime actors are.

Photo by Flickr user Global Panorama.

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