Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

China’s Swinging National Interest in the South China Sea

South China Sea has become one of the world critical regions, the place where geopolitics meets economics. We have grown being used to the reports in international media talking about arrests of fishermen, cut-off the cables, and calls for securing the sovereignty. China has been obviously in a driving seat as the largest, most powerful, and also the most dynamically developing actor of the claimants. The presented essay explains what the Chinese motivation behind, often changing, behavior is, and how the concept of core interest can be applied to shed more light on this.1


The presented paper deals with the People’s Republic of China’s (just China from now on) foreign policy behavior in the South China Sea (SCS) as a case study of general Chinese foreign policy behavior in recent years. This specific region has been selected for its undisputable importance for most of the actors involved in the international politics in Asia-Pacific region, as well as for China, itself. For demonstration it is enough to recall labels of ‘possible trigger to a large scale conflict’ (Huntington, 2011, 312–314; Shelden, 2013, 995), or the ‘critical tipping point in the geopolitics of Asia-Pacific region’ (Cronin and Kaplan, 2012), which have been awarded to SCS. As for the Chinese, the perception towards SCS shows well the statement of PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli: “how would you feel if I cut off your arms and legs? That's how China feels about the South China Sea“(Tebin 2011).

The approach of national interest will be employed to analyze the behavior of China. Under ‘national interest’ I will understand the behavior of a state motivated by its perceived rational goals. The approach of national interest has been adopted for its apparent rise in the Chinese foreign policy discourse in recent years. Michael Swaine (2011, 3–5) provides a research of the usage of the ‘core interests’ concept. His findings show that the concept was virtually non-existent before 2003, since when it started to be mentioned in a number of occasions with the frequency being skyrocketed from 2008 onwards. Similar conclusion is presented also by Zhang Qingmin (2013), based on his own research of Chinese foreign policy discourse in which national interest has been gaining floor vis-à-vis, for instance, more traditional Confucian language.

To conceptualize China’s national interest I will use the former state councilor Dai Bingguo’s (2010) definition of the three ‘core’ interests of China, which can be regarded as the most authoritative definition and also encompassing more particular definitions, which most often refer to Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang as China’s core interests. The Dai’s three core interests are:

  • preserving state system and leadership of CCP,
  • territorial integrity and national sovereignty,
  • sustainable development of the economy and society.

I will argue in the paper that while China’s behavior in SCS has been fluctuating in recent years substantially between the assertive and accommodating stances, the single national interest approach is nicely capable of explaining this.

China’s behavior in SCS2

China, as the most powerful among the claimants in the complex dispute, can decisively influence conflict dynamics. The conflict witnessed a relative calm period after China softened its behavior in mid-1990s, announced that it would abide by the international law and acceded to UNCLOS. In 2002 China and ASEAN signed Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), which was intended to set guidelines to minimize the likelihood of conflict. Although the implementation of the DoC has been rather fruitless, most of the 2000s went by without significant tensions.

This began to change in 2008 with China reportedly being more ‘assertive’ (Dutton, 2013). The ‘assertiveness’ has had different forms in times, with two notable de-escalations. First occurred after the ARF in July 2010, when SCS became the topic of discussion for the first time and where the US State Secretary Hillary Clinton named freedom of navigation in SCS as the US national interest. The second appeared in July 2011, when, after a series of incidents, China agreed to sign guidelines for implementing DoC. This, however, did not last and in the consequent years there have been more incidents, typically involving clashes between fishermen; maritime agencies trying to “enforce” domestic law; activities of sabotaging the oil-related activities, etc.

Two recent incidents will be discussed here. Between March and June 2012, the Philippines and China were engaged in a stand-off in the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The incident began when Chinese fisher boats were spotted by Filipinos who sent in their largest navy ship to arrest the fishermen; however, Chinese surveillance boats were dispatched as well to prevent the arrest. After a couple of days, the Philippines replaced their navy with coast guards who then stayed in the place opposing Chinese counterparts until June, when both sides pulled out (ICG 2012, 8–10). Nonetheless, Chinese ships were seen on the place soon afterwards and have not left ever since. Reportedly, China is even building structures on the shoal (Glaser – Szalwinski 2013, 6).

Similar incident started in the early May 2013 over the Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippines objected presence of Chinese patrol ships which blocked the Philippines’ ships from delivering supplies to their marines deployed at the shoal, after which vessels of both sides remained in the place facing each other. There have been reports about Chinese attempt to repeat the strategy from the Scarborough Shoal, which would result in establishing a presence at the expense of the opponent (Ibid.). At the time of writing, it is unknown whether the stand-off is still going on, as the media went silent about reporting on the issue, yet there are still mentions of continuation as of September 2013 (see Romero, 2013 and Torode, 2013).

The two incidents show that China is increasingly willing to use a possible situation as an opportunity to strengthen its own positions. There are also signs pointing at the direction that China might feel that its time for securing the sovereignty claims has finally come and it is willing to use a wider range of power tools to get its way, including an ostensive presence of military (Lam, 2013; Holmes, 2013). Yet, at the very same time, China had shown previously that when the tensions grew higher, it repeatedly chose to calm down the situation, as was the case both in 2011 and 2010.


China is an emerging world superpower and SCS is of critical importance to it. In fact, there have been even comments about ‘core interest’ label applying directly to SCS – something which has been traditionally reserved for Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang (Swaine, 2011, 3–5). In this section, I will go beyond whether the concept of core interest has been applied directly to SCS or not, and instead I will analyze how SCS correlates with general logic of the concept as presented by Dai Bingguo.

From the perspective of territorial integrity, the connection with SCS seems the most obvious, at least publicly. Yet, I suggest re-writing this sentence as follows: ‘from the perspective of territorial integrity, the connection with SCS seems the most obvious only publicly’. By stating this, I am of course emphasizing that, ironically, the land features in SCS are of critical importance just for the symbolic value they hold for nationalistic Chinese population. Land features would be necessary for allowing China to claim vast waters around as EEZ/ECS, yet under the light of the recent decision of ICJ in case Columbia v. Nicaragua (Rothwell, 2013) it seems that even more genuine ‘islands’ are not capable of generating EEZ, let alone uninhabited rocks. Yet, the real value of SCS is apparent only when the notion of territorial integrity gets more practical sense of providing for economic development and security, thus the other points of the Dai’s core interest.

In 2010, China imported 55 % of its oil consumption, while out of all its energy imports as much as 80 % passes SCS (Storey, 2013, 55–56). Indeed, it has been restated that a single day of breakage in energy imports via SCS might cause serious social unrests in the country (Cronin – Kaplan, 2013, 12). Furthermore, the sea is said to contain unconfirmed amount of oil. It should not be forgotten that SCS is one of the richest fisheries in the world. Third point – state and regime security – can be in fact approached from two directions. SCS holds valuable strategic and geopolitical position, yet perhaps less so for defending Mainland China (provided that we included securing the energy imports under the previous point) than for external projecting of power, such as towards Taiwan, but also towards Indian and Pacific Oceans.

Eventually, the perspective of regime security is perhaps the ‘core interest’ being most at stake in SCS and it is connected to the previous two points. It has been claimed, that the continuing of CCP rule in China is based on two legitimizing factors: the national liberation and restating of the sovereignty, and providing for economic prosperity. Both of these points are in play here – territorial integrity is a critical quality of sovereignty and as such, it is a highly sensitive issue among public, which can potentially develop into popular dissatisfaction with the government policies if those are perceived not favorably. Similarly, an economic slow-down would threaten the basis of the system, too. Moreover, the ‘single day of breakage’ statement is in fact redirecting us here – to the regime security, as the internal unrests which would threaten the regime.


I have shown that Chinese foreign policy behavior towards SCS has been shifting between the more assertive and somewhat accommodating stances in recent years. I have also explained that Dai Bingguo’s three core interests are in a way contradictory, especially when taking into account their practical consequences. While assertive behavior would mean appeasing nationalists and preventing them from attacking the government, the same behavior would endanger the economic functioning of the system both, in short and long terms. I argue that this inherent contradiction in the national (core) interests is the reason of seemingly contradictory foreign policy behavior of China.

Perhaps, I can try my luck and forecast future development of Chinese foreign policy in SCS, based on the presented facts and their analysis. An obvious statement would be that China would continue in switching between assertive and accommodating behaviors. However, I assert that the whole picture should take into account also a possibility of a trend, and I believe that it is leading towards bigger assertion. The continual rise of China’s relative power capabilities together with growing confidence of its leaders and pressure by increasingly nationalist and vocal public will push China into more assertive behavior in the future.

However, an escalation is not what China wants. It might have a disastrous impact on its economy and it would move other countries to an anti-China coalition. Thus, a mix of assertiveness and diplomacy is still a probable mix of China’s ideal strategy – while waiting for opportunities to ‘have things done’ (有所作为), as one line of Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum orders (see Chen and Wang, 2011).


  1. This paper was prepared during a joint Peking University and London School of Economics summer school program and a consequent research stay at Peking University, in August 2013.
  2. This section uses some material from previously published article Turcsányi, R. 2013. The Long Term Perspective of the South China Sea Dispute (Policy Paper). Bratislava: CENAA-IAS.


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Richard Turcsanyi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University and the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politics magazine. Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.

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Richard Turcsányi
21. 10. 2013