Beijing is struggling to modify the East-Asian security order to suit to its interests. It is an inevitable policy in China to keep potentially adversarial forces as far from its borders as possible. To this end, Beijing’s revisionism folds two major dimensions: strictly military, the first, and political-military, the other.
To the first aspect, China’s national security objectives and priorities are deeply influenced by the region’s geopolitical context, where Beijing tackles a high number of historical rivals (e.g. Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan), faces an adverse geographical environment made of several island chains and choke-points limiting its power projection and trade, while meeting a strong U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific.
These factors have long molded Chinese national security strategies, but today are a crucial concern for Secretary Xi Jinping attempting to attain the goal of “National Rejuvenation” and realizing the “Chinese Dream” for a “New Era,”as Xi put it in the last years and during the 19th Party Congress opening speech. The South China Sea (SCS) seems the heaviest burden on Chinese policies and Beijing aims to a full control and exploitation, making it today the “most contested maritime space in the world” as noted by Morton. Indeed, five nations have territorial claims on the SCS (China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam) and the United States demand a free and full viability through it for their trade and Sea Lines of Communication.
The SCS, “a core national interest,” carries great significance for China for two primary reasons. One, according to different estimates between 21-36 % of the global trade and over 64 percent of China’s maritime commerce transit through the SCS . Not without reason, Hu Jintao acknowledged a “Malacca Dilemma”, referring to Beijing’s over-reliance on the strait preceding the SCS, in Chinese policies back in 2003. Two, the SCS is relevant for defense and national security. When the USS Lassen broke into the Spratly Islands in 2015, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang claimed that Washington was threatening China’s national security interests and sovereignty and the mantra has been repeated in many other occasions, including Chinese President Xi Jinping officially protesting it to Obama. Indeed, letting a foreign country be able to forward its power straight into China’s closest sea, would be a fatal risk if the political and strategic environment surrounding Beijing will become more hostile and harsher. That would enable a rival, even a small, short-range one, free to threaten Chinese center of gravity, hitting it with a strike or to bottling up its harbors. Against the United States, China is pursuing cost-imposing strategies (“active defense” according to Chinese sources) to make the U.S. presence in the SCS and the East China Sea economically unbearable and an American military success in the area increasingly unlikely.
In the political-military dimension, China aims to achieve a more beneficial security architecture for East Asia. Therefore, Beijing periodically spoke against the U.S.-centred alliance system in Asia that commits Washington to provide military aid and support to many countries (e.g. Japan, ROC, Philippines, Australia) in the region, showing a “increased level of frustration”. In China’s perception, indeed, the current hub-and-spoke system could turn a local and limited controversy into a wider and international contention. Thus, Beijing often supported an indigenous security architecture, a New Security Concept (NSC) as proposed in 1997 and a New Asian Security Concept (NASC) as in 2014, i.e. an Asia-centred mechanism for security disputes settlement that would establish a regional balance where “no country attempt to dominate regional security affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of other countries” that would replace the U.S. “Cold War and zero-sum” security order. Actually, no major actions followed Xi Jinping’s 2014 NASC proposal.
How the current U.S. administration will manage China’s regional revisionism will influence East-Asia’s stability and prosperity. So far, President Trump authorized six Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea (Obama demanded an equal amount of them in eight years) displaying a more resolute and assertive stance toward China and no signs of improvement in the U.S.-China strategic relationship appeared yet.