12 September 2015

China’s Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability

A welcome addition to The Ryan Martinson Bookshelf, this may well be his most important article yet. And that’s saying a lot…

Its worth noting that Dr. Shi Yinhong (时殷弘) is a leading Chinese international relations expert who has advised Chinas government on important matters.

Ryan Martinson, “China’s Great Balancing Act Unfolds: Enforcing Maritime Rights vs. Stability,” The National Interest, 11 September 2015.

Chinese leaders are torn by two conflicting goals: The desire to regain “lost” islands and waters and a need to maintain stable relations with neighbors and America.

During a July 2015 television news show, Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong was asked to define China’s strategy in the South China Sea. After first declining to answer the question—“I can’t tell this to outsiders. I can’t tell you.”—the raspy-voiced professor quickly found a compromise between discretion and the academic’s inherent need to expatiate. With fellow guest, naval analyst Li Jie, nodding on, Shi described China’s strategy in four characters: 步步为营 (bubu weiying): “Building fortifications after each new advance.” …

The most definitive public acknowledgment of this shift took place in 2013. On July 31st of that year, the CCP held a Politburo meeting entirely devoted to the topic of transforming China into a “maritime power.” They invited two experts—one from CNOOC (of South China Sea oil rig fame) and one from SOA—to brief them. After their presentations, Xi Jinping offered his own views on the key elements of China’s maritime power strategy.

Xi called for “four shifts” (sige zhuanbian), i.e., four changes to policy. Three of the four shifts involved questions of the role of the ocean in China’s economic development. Xi’s fourth shift identified the need for a new balance between rights and stability. His choice of words implied a judgment that in the past China had attached too much importance to stability, to the detriment of rights. In the days following the Politburo meeting, Chinese experts dissected Xi’s remarks in articles published on the front page of SOA’s newspaper, China Ocean News. Peace and stability were important, they concluded, but in the final analysis China’s “rights” were more important. …

Chinese strategists have clearly recognized the value of controlling access to and from islands and other land features. By deciding who can and cannot use the sea, China is able to decide who can and cannot occupy land. With Scarborough Shoal, the Second Thomas Shoal, and now the Luconia Breakers, China has used maritime law enforcement ships to achieve these ends nonviolently, daring other states to fire the first shot. There is strong reason to believe that China will adopt this approach to assert control over other features—if it judges such actions pose no threat to stability.

The rights/stability model also provides a solid foundation for debating American policy responses. It reveals that Beijing is acutely conscious that its actions risk creating instability in its foreign relations. Moreover, it suggests that instability is its greatest concern. Thus, if the U.S. wishes to contain the spatial expansion of the Chinese state, it must be prepared to conjure the specter of instability. That is, Chinese policymakers must be persuaded that their actions could lead to outcomes that ultimately threaten the “period of strategic opportunity.” Given the apparent cracks in the foundation of China’s economic model, this prospect has likely never been more fearsome to Chinese leaders.


Ryan D. Martinson, “China’s Second Navy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 141.4 (April 2015).

Ryan D. Martinson, “Jinglue Haiyang: The Naval Implications of Xi Jinping’s New Strategic Concept,” Jamestown China Brief (9 January 2015).

Ryan D. Martinson, “Chinese Maritime Activism: Strategy Or Vagary?The Diplomat, 18 December 2014.

Ryan D. Martinson, “The Militarization of China’s Coast Guard,” The Diplomat, 21 November 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Here Comes China’s Great White Fleet,” The National Interest, 1 October 2014.

Ryan Martinson, “Power to the Provinces: The Devolution of China’s Maritime Rights Protection,” Jamestown China Brief 14.17 (10 September 2014).