Securing the front yard: Explaining China’s assertive strategy in the South China sea

By Matthijs Olde MSc

The time China was a minor regional player is long gone, and Beijing knows it. The Chinese leadership openly expects to be the world’s biggest superpower before 2050. Chinese president Xi Jinping declared China to ‘lead in the reform of global governance’ in the coming years [1]. Initiatives like the One Belt, One Road-initiative, the Chinese-funded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) or the controversial ‘Nine-Dash line’ territorial claims of the South China Sea are all parts of this bigger plan to gain a stronger regional foothold and to increase its political and economic position. At the same time, Beijing’s assertive behaviour is also strongly rooted in China’s strategic insecurities.

The objectives of China’s foreign policy are officially defined as maintaining domestic stability, sovereign security, economic and social development and territorial reunification [2]. In practice, the drivers of Chinese interests are a mix of objectives which focus on the need to secure access to foreign resources and to prevent external involvement from political issues which are seen as internal, such as the territorial disputes with Tibet, Taiwan or Xinjiang. For most countries foreign policy is a reflection of domestic priorities; China makes this evidently clear with the highest priority given to the survival of the one-party rule [3].

Continuing economic growth and increasing welfare help to maintain the political status-quo of prioritizing internal stability [4]. However, in this context, China has some significant disadvantages. First of all, its territory is enormous and contains a vast population, but China is also a vast and empty country. A massive population combined with limited usable lands creates a dependency on the import of essential commodities. Secondly, due to the vast unpopulated deserts and mountain ranges towards its borders, China is essentially landlocked from three sides. At the same time, most of the densely populates areas are near the coast in the east. As such, the nation has a limited strategic depth which it partially tries to solve through the creation of military positions on artificial islands and reefs. In the eyes of the Chinese government, these fortified bases also function as an effective annexation of one of the worlds key sea-lanes and marine resources. As such, a stronger strategic position in the Pacific and a control over the sea routes is vital for survival in the long term.

Because of China’s dependence on foreign trade, the economy has a significant strategic disadvantage to any nation which can limit its access to trade. China’s access to the world goes past Japan, South Korea and most importantly through the South China Sea. A blockade of these naval chokepoints can seriously harm Chinese interests. China’s most dangerous potential adversary, the United States and its Pacific Allies, have significant naval forces in the region including carrier groups, nuclear submarines and patrol ships. As a reaction, it is understandable that China has been investing in maritime forces, forward bases in the South China Sea and long-range anti-shipping missiles to keep the U.S. Navy or any other potential adversary at a distance [5]. Beijing knows that it does not only need to ensure access to the international market through acquiring infrastructure and resources abroad via financial constructions, debt provision and investment deals. They are fully aware that until they can guarantee the flow of resources all the way back to the Chinese mainland, China’s strategic sovereignty is not guaranteed.

Because of this strategic disposition, China needs to continue increasing their regional foothold. In the plan of becoming the largest superpower in the world, China cannot leave open a position in which they can relatively easily be destabilised by any adversary with sufficient capabilities to hinder the geographical flow of resources. At the same time, the rest of the world needs to stay invested in the freedom of navigation and access to the region to discourage China from behaving like a colonial power.



[2] Weissmann, M. (2015) Chinese Foreign Policy in a Global Perspective: A responsible Reformer ‘Striving for Achievement’ JCIR. 3.(1). 

[3] Heath, T.R., (2012). What Does China Want? Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy.  Asian Security. 8(1): 54–72

[4] Weissmann, M. (2015) Chinese Foreign Policy in a Global Perspective: A responsible Reformer ‘Striving for Achievement’. JCIR. 3.(1).

[5] O’Rourke, R. (2018) China Naval Modernization: Implication for U.S. Navy Capabilities – Background and Issues for Congress. Congressional Research Service.


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