04 June 2015

Elizabeth Economy Surveys China’s Multifarious Explanations for its Actions in the South China Sea

Elizabeth C. Economy, “China’s Muddled Message on the South China Sea,” Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, 3 July 2015.

If the recent Shangri-La Dialogue demonstrated one thing—aside from the fact that Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can deliver an important speech that is both strong and subtle—it is that mitigating tensions in the South China Sea remains a problem with no solution in sight. As the Chinese have continued with their reef reclamation and low-level militarization of small islands in the South China Sea, a number of Chinese scholars and foreign policy officials have sought to clarify the reasons behind Beijing’s actions. Yet what emerges from all the disparate voices is a sense that there is no compelling rationale—or at least not one that the foreign policy community can acknowledge. Instead, there is significant effort to impute an acceptable rationale to the country’s destabilizing behavior.

Here is a brief sampling:

  • The past is precedent:Other regions and states, such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Dubai, have expanded their territory into maritime areas without complaint, not to mention Vietnam and the Philippines. …