China's calculated coercive moves

China's calculated coercive moves
An officer of the Vietnamese marine guard monitoring a Chinese coast guard vessel in the South China Sea, about 210km off the coast of Vietnam. China is determined to uphold the country's controversial "nine-dashed line"

CHINA - In recent months, China's unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea have driven regional tensions to a new high.

China's well-calculated moves are motivated by multiple internal and external factors. These include boosting President Xi Jinping's prestige and authority for his domestic reform agenda, along with an assumption that the United States is extremely unlikely to intervene at this moment in time.

Other than the overt actions to assert China's claims in the South China Sea, official statements and legal studies analysis from within China also reflect a recalibrated determination to uphold the country's controversial "nine-dashed line" in the South China Sea.

From a Chinese perspective, the most transparent and direct explanation of China's rising assertiveness in the South China Sea is simple: China believes that its past unilateral restraint has done nothing to improve China's position regarding South China Sea disputes and these inactions have, in fact, resulted in other claimant countries strengthening their presence and claims.

Therefore, for China to improve its position in the current climate or for future negotiations, it must first change the status quo through all available means necessary. China prefers to utilise civilian and paramilitary approaches but does not reject military coercion if required.

An advantaged position and certain exclusive privilege in the South China Sea are both believed to be indispensable for China's aspiration to become a "strong maritime power", a "key task" stipulated by the 18th Party Congress in 2012 and a policy personally endorsed by Mr Xi.

While China's aspirations for a "Blue Water Navy" and naval expansion face multiple choke points along its east coast from Japan down to the Philippines, the South China Sea is considered to offer China a much larger and less constrained maritime domain for naval manoeuvres.

Domestic issues

WHILE the policy to change the status quo and pursue a strong maritime power status has existed for a few years, the particular timing of China's most recent actions is closely associated with Chinese domestic politics - President Xi needs a strong foreign policy posture in order to strengthen his domestic power base. Mr Xi's ongoing reform agenda since his inauguration last year, including "deepening economic reforms" and a strong "anti-corruption" campaign, have touched upon many sensitive issues related to existing interest groups and leadership politics in China.

Therefore, Mr Xi needs as much foreign policy credit as possible to build his strongman image and defuse internal criticisms of his various domestic agendas. This does not necessarily suggest or prove that he personally does not endorse an assertive foreign policy, but it does add an additional layer of strong motivation to it.

Last but not least, China is behaving assertively in the South China Sea because it believes it can.

This assessment is not only based on China's growing military capacity, which dwarfs the capabilities of perhaps all other Southeast Asian claimant countries combined, but also on a strong conviction in China that the United States will not use its hard power to counter Chinese actions.

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