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Bill Hayton: What the West doesn't get about China

Beijing's South China Sea ambitions encompass defense, trade -- and pride

The question of what China actually wants in the South China Sea is surprisingly little-studied in the West. Too many international analysts seem happy to make assumptions about its strategic and tactical motivations without reference to Chinese sources.

A preoccupation among U.S. strategists about freedom of navigation, the safety of allies and the maintenance of a rules-based order dominates most English-language writing about the dispute. Too often they project the same motivations onto the "other" and interpret Chinese actions accordingly.

Official Chinese documents paint a different picture. China's white paper on military strategy two years ago identified the major threats facing the country as "hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism," and stated that the military's top priority is "to safeguard [China's] national unification, territorial integrity and development interests."

While the U.S. analysts are focused on access through the South China Sea as part of the "global commons," the Chinese focus is on defending it as part of its inherent territory. My research has shown this historical narrative to be baseless. Nonetheless, Western analysts need to take it much more seriously to understand what is causing the disputes there.

Although the opacity of China's political process makes it difficult to assess the true intentions of the country's leadership, official pronouncements provide some insights. For example, in June 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping asserted that China must place the highest priority on building "an impregnable wall for border and ocean defense."

THE ADMIRAL'S LIST In his 2004 memoirs, Adm. Liu Huaqing, the father of the modern Chinese navy, listed six maritime objectives in his strategy of "near-seas active defense," namely reunifying Taiwan with the mainland; the return of lost and disputed maritime territory; defending national maritime resources; securing China's strategic lines of communication; precluding or defeating decisively any seaborne attack; and building sufficient strategic nuclear deterrence.

The first three goals concern the "returning" of territory and resources to national control, which testifies to the Chinese leadership's enduring obsession with ending the country's "national humiliation." But international analysis of Chinese actions in the South China Sea concentrate too much on the last three goals -- the classic subjects of traditional naval studies and international relations. Such analysis fails to understand the key motivations driving Chinese policy.

China's actions are based on a sense of national entitlement to the islands, reefs and waters of the South China Sea, reflecting nationalist readings of regional history. This sense of entitlement is likely to lead China to make even more assertive moves in the future -- a creeping annexation of strategic and resource-rich areas -- that will result in further confrontations.

Strategic considerations are, of course, very important to China. For a country dependent on trade, access to the open ocean through the South China Sea is a matter of national survival. As a result, it can easily be argued that China's island-building is a defensive response to a possible future U.S. war strategy to interdict maritime trade routes.

China has been a net importer of food since 2007, and in 2013 it surpassed the U.S. to become the world's largest net oil importer. Foreign trade makes up around 40% of China's gross domestic product, yet the country has no clear access to the open sea.

A second element to this "defensive" agenda is to strengthen an "anti-access/area denial" strategy against U.S. support of Taiwan in the event of a conflict. China's new island bases bolster monitoring by the country's early warning systems, facilitate tracking of potential targets and offer dispersed havens for warships and aircraft.

A third element is that China is expected to use the deep-water areas of the South China Sea to provide a base for its new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines. The installation of electronic listening stations on the new Chinese-built artificial islands suggests they would be used as bases for surveillance operations to strengthen an integrated defense of the submarines. The island-building is also meant to deter Southeast Asian claimants taking actions to prevent China from exploiting natural resources there.

"HISTORIC RIGHTS" There are plenty of indications that Chinese officials supported a more assertive policy well before Xi took power in 2012. This reflects competition among the armed maritime forces, the fishing industry and state-owned energy companies and other parties that stand to benefit from an assertive South China Sea policy. Although these lobbies sometimes fight among themselves, one thing they can all agree on is that for reasons of nationalism, security, profit or jobs, China must have complete access to the South China Sea.

Underpinning these "defensive" and bureaucratic motivations is a chauvinistic version of history. Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, the official Chinese view is that only its ships ever used the South China Sea and so China has "historic rights" to waters inside its "U-shaped line" claim. In July 2016, an international arbitral tribunal in The Hague ruled there were no legitimate grounds for China to claim "historic rights." Nonetheless, this argument continues to underpin the conflict between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Beijing's South China Sea claim was mainly developed in the first half of the 20th century in response to Japanese and European imperialism, and it is this aspect of its history that still makes it such an emotive issue today.

The U.S. and other governments have wisely remained neutral on the territorial question. But that does not mean they should ignore it. If analysts discount the historical elements and focus only on questions of grand strategy, they will end up answering the wrong question, leaving the problem of the South China Sea to fester. The result is likely to be continuing conflict that will be difficult to resolve by confidence-building measures or shows of naval force. The root cause of China's sense of entitlement needs to be addressed.

Beijing believes that any action by a foreign power that tries to obstruct the reunification of the national territory -- whether it be a naval patrol or an international arbitral tribunal -- must be resisted because it is simply another episode in a long history of foreign plots to split the country up.

If policymakers in the U.S. and elsewhere fail to recognize the motivating power of China's historical narrative and territorial imperative, they will fail to understand Chinese objectives.

While the use of force may obstruct Chinese advances temporarily, it will also amplify feelings of frustration and lead to an even more assertive response. The disputes can only be resolved by undermining China's sense of righteousness.

China's strategic reasons for maintaining a strong presence in the South China Sea -- the defense of its coast, sea lanes and nuclear deterrent -- will endure. But its arguments for exclusive control of maritime resources and the right to regulate navigation are based upon flawed historical narratives that should be challenged.

All states seeking a peaceful settlement need to take the history seriously and assert that unsupported claims are not a viable basis for dialogue and conflict resolution. A critical engagement in discussions with China about the basis of its South China Sea narrative is an essential first step by producing evidence to challenge bogus historical narratives. In the past 20 years, all this evidence has become easily available. It is time to use it.

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow at Chatham House and author of "The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia."

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