27 October 2011

Can China Defend a ‘Core Interest’ in the South China Sea?

Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes, Can China Defend a ‘Core Interest’ in the South China Sea? The Washington Quarterly 34.2 (2011): 45-59.

Déjà vu surrounds reports that Beijing has claimed a ‘‘core interest’’ in the South China Sea. High-ranking Chinese officials reportedly asserted such an interest during a private March 2010 meeting with two visiting U.S. dignitaries, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader. Subsequently, in an interview with The Australian, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disclosed that Chinese delegates reaffirmed Beijing’s claim at the Second U.S.—China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a gathering held in Beijing in May 2010. Conflicting accounts have since emerged about the precise context and what was actually said at these meetings. Since then, furthermore, Chinese officials have refrained from describing the South China Sea in such formal, stark terms in a public setting.

The ambiguity and controversy recall a similar incident 15 years ago, as the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis reached its crescendo. On that occasion, a Chinese general reportedly told Ambassador Chas Freeman that U.S. leaders ‘‘care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan.’’ His statement was widely interpreted as a veiled nuclear threat. Subsequent Chinese disavowals and backpedaling obscured the exact nature of this unofficial conversation. Nevertheless, these incidents together show that Beijing commonly draws red lines around issues it considers paramount to its well-being. They also comprise a cautionary tale about taking Chinese statements at face value.

Assume for the sake of discussion that Beijing is pursuing a core interest in the South China Sea as a matter of policy. Declaring such an interest would seemingly elevate the strategic importance of that body of water to a level reserved for Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang—territory that is integral to China’s vision of itself as a nation and that must be protected at all costs. This represents a political goal of astonishing scope. Defending it would presumably warrant diplomatic and military efforts of the utmost magnitude. But can the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) follow through, and how?

Does Beijing possess the military means, strategy, and warfighting prowess to uphold an interest of such overriding importance? Assessing existing and nascent Chinese capabilities will help policymakers and analysts determine whether Beijing’s ends in the South China Sea lie within its military means. If not, it is important to examine the time and resources China must invest to mount a credible defense of its core interests. Such a benchmark will also suggest how key stakeholders in the region can respond to an increasingly ambitious Chinese policy without provoking an overreaction from Beijing. …