In Defense of Chinese “Expansionism” in the South China Sea

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Terracotta Army, China © Nikada

China’s “expansionist” ambitions in the South China Sea should be understood through the lens of its history of military inferiority and defeat.

Much has been made of China’s actions in the South China Sea in recent years. These actions have, in various quarters, been labeled “aggressive,” “offensive” and even “expansionist.”

To be sure, a cursory look at the current evidence suggests that these are indeed appropriate adjectives to describe Beijing’s increasing militarization of the South China Sea. While there has been a clearly observable pattern of escalating militarization of Chinese-controlled islands and reefs, the concept of strategic culture provides a more nuanced, and more benign, interpretation of Beijing’s foreign policy.

Indisputably, the latest developments on Chinese-controlled islands have been of a military nature, despite Beijing’s official proclamations citing “civilian purposes.” While China commenced construction on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands as far back as 1995, the year 2016 saw the advent of large-scale Chinese military activity in multiple disputed areas.

In February 2016, surface-to-air (SAM) anti-aircraft missile batteries and military radar systems were sighted on disputed and Chinese-controlled Woody Island, the largest of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

The subsequent sighting of Chinese military Shenyang J-11 fighter planes on the same island in April 2016 and satellite imagery in June and July 2016 showing the construction of aircraft hangars on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs—some of which are big enough to accommodate the largest military aircraft (such as the Xian H-6K strategic bomber) in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)—understandably made China’s presence in the region a pressing cause for concern.

China’s Strategic Culture

On the face of it, labeling China “aggressive” or “expansionist” seems justified. However, what is perhaps more significant than Beijing’s behavior is the motivation behind it. As such, an examination of what informs and influences Chinese foreign policy paints a picture quite different from the alarmist caricature of an “expansionist” China.

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According to Alastair Iain Johnston, a Harvard professor and China specialist, the concept of strategic culture—a nation-specific “set of strategic preferences” rooted in the nation’s historical military experience—strongly shapes Beijing’s strategic behavior. When applied to China, Johnston’s theory reveals the centrality of what can be described as the “politics of humiliation”in Chinese political discourse, where the narrative of national humiliation has been “an integral part of the construction of Chinese nationalism.”

Official statements from Beijing suggest this narrative of national humiliation does indeed influence foreign policymaking. In 2004, in a speech on the “historic missions” of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), then-Chinese President Hu Jintao stated: “Western hostile forces have not yet given up the wild ambition of trying to subjugate us.”

In the same vein, China’s strategic culture has historically been one of hard realpolitik, and this cultural disposition toward realist principles drives Beijing’s political decision-making. This strategic culture has developed in response to experiences of military defeat and subjugation, specifically the “Century of Humiliation” that began with the Sino-British Opium Wars, and has been internalized by successive Chinese governments.

Four Cultural Narratives

According to Merriden Varrall of the Lowy Institute, this narrative of national humiliation is one of four “cultural narratives” that comprise a unique Chinese strategic culture. The second narrative revolves around Chinese national and cultural self-identity, in particular the belief that China is an inherently peaceful actor and has no history of expansionist behavior. Beijing has consistently argued that the international community has nothing to fear from a nation as inherently peace-loving as China.

Indeed, President Xi Jinping stated in a 2014 speech: “The pursuit of peace, amity and harmony is an integral part of the Chinese character which runs deep in the blood of the Chinese people.”

The Chinese view that cultural characteristics are inherent is also applied by power brokers in Beijing to other states. In China’s worldview, the United States is inherently and invariably seeking hegemony in international relations. From this perspective, China’s actions in the South China Sea could be construed as a defensive measure against Washington’s allegedly interventionist behavior in the region, such as its conducting of Freedom of Navigation naval operations close to the islands claimed by China.

A third narrative, of “history as destiny,” encapsulates the belief that because China was a powerful—yet peaceful—state in the past, such a role in the international system is Beijing’s “natural and rightful place.”

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Finally, a fourth narrative is centered around the notion of loyalty and the nation-state as a family entity. The Chinese word for nation or state can be transliterated into “country-family,” which attests to the inextricable Chinese cultural association between the two concepts. This stands in sharp contrast to the Western paradigm in which the state and public life are clearly separated from civil society, family and private life.

This entwining of the state and the family leads to the implication that any criticism of China—and in particular China’s foreign policy—is portrayed by Chinese state media as a personal attack on the Chinese people, in turn generating popular anger against foreign critics (generally the West).

In sum, while these cultural narratives appear to be constitutive of a Chinese strategic culture, they are also tools Beijing uses to legitimize and mobilize popular support for foreign policy actions.

In this way, a self-sustaining cycle has been established where Beijing’s use of these narratives through state media to boost nationalist sentiment and legitimize its foreign policy objectives reinforces their salience in Chinese society. This, in turn, creates greater appetite for more right-leaning foreign policy and the entrenchment of a general Chinese strategic culture that inexorably guides the direction of China’s foreign policymaking.

No Place for Miscalculation

Herein, the influence of a national strategic culture on a state’s strategic behavior is compelling, and this helps to account for—but not necessarily justify—China’s actions in the South China Sea in recent years. An understanding of the notion of strategic culture contributes to a more complete understanding of Chinese strategic thinking and foreign policy—the importance of which is self-evident, considering China’s status as an emerging global actor and superpower.

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With wider acceptance of the significance of strategic culture in academia, China’s neighbors in the Asia Pacific may then position their own foreign policies toward engagement rather than containment, which would then boost the prospects of peace in the region. Indeed, containment—in particular the US Pivot to Asia policy—almost certainly contributes to the entrenchment of Chinese strategic culture and Beijing’s perception of encirclement and attempted “subjugation” by the West.

On a more cautionary note, the new Trump administration makes it difficult to be particularly optimistic about international security in the South China Sea and the wider Asia Pacific region over the next four years.

If current career diplomats have not been able to grasp or accept the nuances of Chinese strategic culture, then the Trump administration is unlikely to fare better than previous administrations in Washington’s dealings with Beijing. Indeed, Donald Trump managed to anger the Chinese even before he took office by accepting a phone call from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, casting doubt on the decades-long One China policy that former US administrations have tacitly complied with.

More significantly, that episode demonstrated the Trump administration’s ignorance with regard to the strongly emotive historical and cultural underpinnings of Beijing’s insistence on the One China status quo.

All this, of course, has serious implications for the Asia Pacific region. The centrality of a historically-rooted Chinese strategic culture to Beijing’s foreign policy means that President Trump’s decidedly undiplomatic approach to diplomacy is naive at best and provocative at worst—and the South China Sea today is no place for miscalculation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Nikada

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