Smaller countries that ring the sea, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia have tested Beijing’s patience by striking claims to multiple islets, building structures on them and prospecting for energy in the surrounding waters. Indeed, these actions preceded any by China. But leniency has limits.
This sense of righteousness drives China’s massive island-building project in the Spratlys chain, which is now at the center of a gathering crisis in the world’s most economically vibrant region.
And it comes with a long historical perspective. China is merely returning what it calls its “near waters” to the state in which it believes they existed for millennia—as a Chinese “lake”—before a century of colonialism intervened.
Now, after China has put civil war, Japanese invasion and other tumult behind it and after four decades of spectacular economic rise, it is finally strong enough to stand its ground under President Xi Jinping.
Far from behaving as a revisionist power with military ambitions to dominate, in China’s reckoning the ballooning of reefs and rocks into potential fortresses is an act of historical redemption.
In short, China’s dredging activities don’t upset the balance, they restore it.
This general viewpoint helps to explain what, at face value, was an extraordinary statement by Adm. Sun Jianguo at a major security conference in Singapore last weekend.
Addressing himself to the issue on the minds of everybody at the Shangri-La Dialogue—China’s construction of 2,000 acres of mid-sea territory over the past 18 months (the equivalent of 1,500 football fields)— the deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army declared that his country is actually holding back.
“China has exercised enormous restraint,” he said.
Ignoring the appeals of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to halt the expansion that threatens America’s military primacy, and brushing aside one Asian country after another whose military and security leaders complained that China is threatening the peace, Adm. Sun insisted that the building activity is “legitimate, justified and reasonable.”
Adm. Sun didn’t go on to explain what China might have done had it not exercised self-control.
Yet this question is at the root of the anxiety now gripping Asia. If a construction spree on an unprecedented scale equals restraint, what would unrestraint look like?
Since China’s maritime claims are so sweeping—almost the entire South China Sea and all its features—the fear in Southeast Asia is that China is temporarily suppressing an urge for all-out control of its “lake” and its passageways.
By urging Vietnam to halt its own reclamation works in the area, Mr. Carter indicated that he understands very well the danger that China’s patience could snap.
Many in the region believe that it’s only a matter of time before China claims control over the skies by setting up an air defense zone like the one it has declared above the East China Sea—a move that Adm. Sun didn’t rule out. Such an action “will depend on whether our maritime security will be threatened,” he said.
China already asserts the right to regulate all the fishing in the South China Sea. And it regards the entire area as an administrative subdivision of Hainan Island, a governing writ that extends almost as far south as Indonesia.
What’s more, China picks and chooses those aspects of international law that support its case, and ignores those that don’t. Even though it is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it has never spelled out its maritime claims under that law.
Last month, the Chinese navy tried to shoo away a U.S. spy plane carrying a CNN camera crew that approached Fiery Cross Reef, one of the largest build-outs. “You go!” yelled a Chinese naval radio operator.
The P-8 Poseidon aircraft was warned it was advancing toward a “military alert zone”—a category of airspace that appears to have no legal basis. The warning indicates that China nonetheless intends to use the construction to enhance its control over the South China Sea’s skies and sea lanes that carry more than half the world’s trade.
Ambiguity, in fact, is a deliberate Chinese tactic. A nine-dash line that appears on Chinese maps around the South China Sea to signal ownership doesn’t include any coordinates. Nor has China explained the map’s legal basis.
Still, not everybody is convinced that China intends to press its claims all the way.
Writing in the Singapore Straits Times this week, Wang Gungwu, a professor at the National University of Singapore and a leading authority on imperial China, argued that China has never desired a maritime empire. The voyages 600 years ago of the eunuch Adm. Zheng He were an aberration.
Unlike Britain and the U.S., which built superpower status through naval might, China has traditionally sought power through economic strength and technological brilliance.
“China’s key problem is how to convince its neighbors that it has no intention to move from being assertive to being aggressive,” Mr. Wang writes.
For now, the U.S. and its Asian allies are left guessing how long China’s self-control will last. The debate in Washington is over whether Chinese restraint should be encouraged through diplomacy and appeals to legal principles and international norms, or imposed by force. Either way, restraint is not assumed.