19 April 2012

Chinese Naval Strategy in the South China Sea: An Abundance of Noise and Smoke, but Little Fire

Lyle Goldstein, “Chinese Naval Strategy in the South China Sea: An Abundance of Noise and Smoke, but Little Fire,” Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia 33.3 (2011): 320-47.

This survey of official and quasi-official Chinese-language naval literature provides some new insights regarding Beijing’s evolving strategy in the South China Sea. Most importantly — and contrary to conventional wisdom — a surprising diversity of viewpoint is evident in Chinese naval circles that likely reflects the wider debate among Chinese strategists more generally. Thus, it is important to note that a major theme in many of these writings is the need for Beijing to adopt a cautious and compromising policy. Other themes revealed in this literature include a distinct threat perception, as well as concern that China could be cut out of the resource benefits of the South China Sea. Finally, a troubling pattern of escalation is evident in the literature with writings after mid-2010 assuming a disturbingly vitriolic character, perhaps even suggesting that Beijing’s military policy in the South China Sea could take an ominous turn in the future. The final point should raise some major questions regarding the present direction of US policy in the region. As the US is looking to “step up its game” in the South China Sea area, Washington (and other regional actors) must realize that the “game” may develop in a variety of destabilizing ways. …

For details on one of the works cited here, see Gabriel B. Collins, Andrew S. Erickson, Lyle J. Goldstein, and William S. Murray, eds., China’s Energy Strategy: The Impact on Beijing’s Maritime Policies (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2008).