According to Stratfor, China is a great power which has to behave differently from other great powers, having three geopolitical imperatives: to maintain internal unity in the Han Chinese regions; to maintain control of the buffer regions; and to protect the coast from foreign encroachment.

Geopolitical and strategic factors

Apart from the attempt by the Mongols to invade Japan, and a single major maritime thrust by China into the Indian Ocean (primarily for trade and quickly abandoned), China has never been a maritime power. Prior to the 19th century, it had not faced enemies capable of posing a naval threat and, as a result, it had little interest in spending large sums of money on building a navy.

Since the arrival of Europeans in the western Pacific, in the mid-19th century, the coast became China’s most vulnerable point. Its vulnerability is, however, not military but economic. The 19th century British intrusion into China led to the destabilization of the country, the virtual collapse of the central government and civil war. The coastal cities were oriented toward the Western powers. Their economic interests were more similar to the Europeans’ and the Americans’ than to those of the Chinese central government. Thus, when the communists tried to spark an uprising in Shanghai in the 1920s, Mao Zedong failed and took the “Long March” into the interior, where he raised a peasant army. The split between coast and interior was institutionalized, and splits between coastal interests emerged as well. Mao Zedong solved the problem by sealing the coast of China off to any real development and liquidating the class that had collaborated with foreign business. Mao saw foreign presence as undermining the stability of China. He also understood that, given China’s population and geography, it could defend itself against potential attackers without an advanced military-industrial complex. However, Mao’s strategy of closing off China to international trade, and achieving unity by excluding foreign influences resulted in internal repression and China failing to fulfill its potential.

Mao’s s successor, Deng Xiaoping, was heir to a powerful state in control of China and the buffer regions. He also felt the political pressure to improve living standards, and he undoubtedly understood that technological gaps would eventually threaten Chinese national security. He took what analysts called a historic gamble, opening China to foreign investment and reorienting the Chinese economy away from agriculture and heavy industry and toward export-oriented industries.

Deng believed he could avoid destabilization by maintaining a strong central government, based on a loyal army and the Communist Party apparatus. His successors have struggled to maintain that loyalty to the state and not to foreign investors. That is the bet that is currently being played out.

When China’s customers stopped buying after 2008, China experienced both a loss of global competitiveness based on low wages and a complex financial problem. China is now shifting to a post-low wage, post-high growth economy to a more sustainable one. While China has achieved its strategic goals – its buffer regions are intact and it faces no threat in Eurasia – the Chinese have become highly dependent on seaborne trade and any attempt to block it would have tremendous consequences.

China’s  coastline in the East is bottled up North to South by a long string of countries which it refers to as the “first island chain”, and for over seven decades, American bases throughout the region have helped make the U.S. Navy the preeminent force in the seas off China. Today’s China is determined to become a first-rank maritime power, but Beijing must first become preeminent in its home waters. Dominating the waters enclosed by the first island chain is vital for Beijing, for two reasons.

The first is about achieving tactical dominance in its home waters, making it prohibitively dangerous for the United States to deploy the nearby 7th Fleet in a conflict over Taiwan or in war with China.

The second reason, even more important, is that China possesses a much small nuclear arsenal than the United States. Survivability for any credible Chinese second-strike capability depends heavily on nuclear-armed submarines that operate from Hainan. The United States patrols the waters of the South China Sea with the world’s most advanced anti-submarine monitoring and warfare capabilities, and — to China’s great irritation — the Pentagon constantly monitors submarine traffic from Hainan to collect acoustic and operational intelligence.
This makes the United States Navy the greatest military threat to China, since it is in a position to blockade China’s ports if it wished. Therefore, China’s primary military interest is to make such a blockade impossible, by making its price so high that the Americans would not attempt it. It is also at the origins of China’s interest to become a sea power, not only in its region but also internationally.

The “nine-dashed line” in the South China Sea

China’s first phase of its strategy aiming to assert control over the South China Sea was noted in 2009, when Beijing staked its claim on a map that it submitted to the United Nations and soon published in every new passport it issued to its citizens.

The map, a relic of the Nationalist rule in the early 20th century, became famous around the world for its most important feature, a loop in the form of nine dashes that droops hundreds of miles from China’s southernmost province, the island of Hainan, and approaches the shores of several Southeast Asian nations, to enclose one of the world’s most important waterways. The South China Sea, which includes important sea lanes for oil shipments from the Middle East and container ships from Europe, and over which military and commercial aircraft routinely fly, is subject to the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS). The “nine-dashed line” extends nearly a thousand miles south of mainland China, close to the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. All of these states claim the 200-mile exclusive economic zones granted under UNCLOS.

The most strategically significant in the area are the Spratly islands, some 750 rocks, atolls, islets, cays and reefs, which cover an area of 425,000 square kilometers – of the South China Sea and are disputed by the five states in the region (China, Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei).

Since 1974, China has tightened its claims to the Sea and it islets, claims that were first articulated in 1947 by the Chinese Nationalist Government under Chiang Kaishek in Nanking, and which the regime in Taipei had staked in the maritime vacuum as Japan gave up claim to the islands at the end of World War II.

When the dispute over Spratly erupted, Chinese officials failed to clarify the meaning of the nine-dashed line, but, they agreed that the dashes demarcated areas where China had sovereign claims. At the same time, they agreed that the South China Sea was not a Chinese lake, and that it was governed by the UN treaty.

Since 2013, China has embarked on a campaign of land reclamation and artificial island building in the South China Sea, which in little more than a year has seeded the waterway with numerous new terrestrial positions, most of them large enough to be garrisoned and some already outfitted with runways long enough to accommodate military transport planes, thus proceeding to create “facts on the sea.”

According to a recent declaration of Hua Chunying, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, China’s claims in the South China Sea were formed over “the long course of history” and have “adequate historical and legal basis.” China’s construction work is “lawful, reasonable and justified,” and is proceeding “at a pace and with a scale befitting her international responsibilities.” Freedom of navigation has never been and will never be an issue, but this concept should not be used “as an excuse to infringe upon the sovereignty, rights and security of coastal countries”, an implicit warning to the United States, who, she said, “should butt out”.

Earlier this year, analysts released images from the area of what is expected to be a 3,000-meter runway that can support military flights, a development that caused great concern among their neighbors.

The Chinese government rejected international criticisms and asserts its sovereign right to build on the islands. There are also reports that China has begun to put heavy weapons on one of them. Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. commander in the Pacific, called it a “great wall of sand” in the strategically important waterways of the South China Sea. By transforming rocks into islands, the Chinese government is creating a reality on the ground in asserting its sovereignty over these disputed rocks and laying the ground to claim the territorial waters around them. The Chinese statement that they will eventually allow others to use facilities on the islands for disaster relief or rescue operations is significant. To take advantage of them, users will no doubt need to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty. If China should successfully claim all of the Spratly islands, it would transform most of the South China Sea, one of the most important maritime routes in the world, into a “Chinese lake”. China’s approach in maritime disputes is sometimes described as a “cabbage strategy”, a slow, deliberate accumulation of new island facilities and naval presence that gradually shifts the military balance in the South China Sea. The U.S. is taking seriously the prospect of being squeezed out of a crucial maritime artery that is used for up to 50 per cent of global commerce.

Russia’s stance

Moscow is unlikely to remain completely untouched by the disputes over the Spratly islands. So far, 2015 witnessed a surge in Russia’s relations with China. With many in the West attempting to present Russia as isolated, the Kremlin sees its ties with Beijing as a manifestation of the contrary. In a similar manner, China may want Moscow to help change its image of a besieged fortress.

Russia’s possible involvement in the South China Sea dispute might be influenced by Vietnam, Russia’s closest partner in Southeast Asia. Vietnam is one of the largest buyers of Russian military equipment, hosts large investment projects and is entering a free trade area with the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union.

As for this moment, Russia’s policy towards the territorial disputes could be described as non-existent, but – while not supporting any of the legal claims, which seems a reasonable thing to do – Moscow raises some eyebrows in Hanoi by failing to react in any meaningful way when any of the parties misbehaves.

However, the Hanoi government is aware of the fact that Russia continues to provide extensive military assistance to Vietnam, strengthening its capacity to repel a potential attack along the maritime borders of the country. Consequently, while Vietnam would like to see more Russian engagement in its squabble with China, Hanoi might not be very keen to “push” Moscow on this topic.

It is likely that Moscow and Beijing might have a “gentlemen’s agreement” according to which Ukraine (for Russia) and the South China Sea (for China) are too sensitive issues for the partner to have a firm position one way or the other.

The 2015 Defense White Paper: a sea-oriented strategy

In the 2015 Defense White Paper, titled “China’s Military Strategy” emphasizes the importance of maritime security, also stressing that the land forces of the People’s Liberation Army, navy and air force would gradually shift focus from defense to offence. “The traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned,” the paper stated. This was confirmed, at the launching of the document, by Chinese military officials who stressed that China has made it a strategic goal to become a maritime power since, with the growth of China’s national interests, the security of its overseas energy and resources, strategic sea lines of communication and the safety of its overseas institutions, personnel and assets have become “prominent issues”.

According to the U.S. Naval Institute, the report is the first public Chinese Military Strategy white paper that outlines a new policy for “active defense”.

Beijing insisted in the document that its military is dedicated to “international security cooperation” and peaceful development. But it also said the navy will expand its focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection” as China aims to establish itself as a maritime power. The air force, meanwhile, will shift its focus from “territorial air defense to both defense and offense.”

According to Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, the white ¬paper is ¬“a blueprint for achieving ¬slow-motion regional hegemony… It asserts a confidence backed by growing capability on land and increasingly at sea. While it calls for balancing China’s territorial ‘rights’ with ‘stability,’ there should be little doubt on the part of its neighbors that China is building a maritime force to assert the former.”

The policy paper also expressed concern about the United States’ “ ‘rebalancing’ strategy,” which has led China to enhance its military presence and strengthen military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and worry about more assertive military and security policies in Japan. The document accused China’s neighbors of provocative actions by reinforcing their military presence on “China’s reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied.” At the same time with the white paper on defense, the state-owned tabloid The Global Times warned that war is “inevitable” if the United States tries to prevent China from finishing its reclamation and construction work. It said the risks would be “still under control” if Washington accepts China’s peaceful rise. Although not necessarily fully reflecting official thinking, the editorial shows China’s determination to continue its projects in the South China Sea.
As a unitary state actor in the international arena, China has a coherent multidimensional approach to global competition which also includes the domination of sea lanes and civil airspace in East Asia. This is one of Beijing’s top strategic goals, not just for economic and military advantage, but also for domestic political legitimacy and regional diplomatic propaganda. In this context, the most visible geostrategic flashpoint between China and the rest of Asia – and the United States as well – is China’s growing belligerence in the seas it shares with its Asian neighbors. China’s claims in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea are certain to be resolved only one of two ways: either China gets what it wants, or, it will use armed conflict to enforce its so-called “core interests.” The recently released United States Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on China’s military and security developments also shows that the United States is primarily concerned with China’s naval modernization, and the People’s Liberation Army’s ground forces receive little mention, relegated to a few scattered. In this sense, the Pentagon’s 2015 report appears to be influenced by a previous U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence report which outlined China’s naval modernization in considerable detail.

A 100-year strategy to become a hegemon

As the 2015 defense white paper points out, “active defense” became the core of China’s military strategy shortly after the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. Chinese maritime strategy, accordingly, goes by the name of “offshore active defense.” The leadership updates its active-defense strategy periodically to stay abreast of new technology and shifts in the geostrategic setting, but the underlying principles remain.

In fact, active defense is a concept older than the People’s Republic itself. Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party’s founding chairman, was also the godfather of active defense. That’s what Mao dubbed the strategy his Red Army used to overcome stronger Nationalist and Japanese opponents, from the party’s inception in 1921 until its greatest triumph in 1949. He codified the phrase in a much-studied 1936 essay on the “Problems of Strategy in China’s Revolutionary War.”

In brief, “active defense” is the strategically defensive posture that a big, resource-rich but weak combatant assumes to weary and turn the tables on a stronger antagonist. Such a combatant needs time to tap its resources – natural riches, manpower, martial ingenuity – so it protracts the war. It makes itself strong over time, raising powerful armed forces, while constantly harrowing the enemy. It chips away at enemy strength where and when it can. Ultimately the weaker becomes the stronger contender, seizes the offensive, and wins. Since the time of Mao Zedong, China has been engaged in an effort to establish itself as the world’s premier superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Communist Revolution. The Chinese consider physical battles just one minor aspect of warfare. China’s main weapon, like Israel’s, is deception – the constant appearance of achieving less than they really have. This philosophy’s origins derive from a book entitled “The General Mirror for the Aid of Government” by Sima Guang and others, a statecraft manual with lessons from ancient Chinese history, centering on stratagems from the Warring States era (475-221 B.C.) that Mao brought with him on his long march in the 1930s. Described as “a statecraft manual with lessons from history that have no Western counterpart,” the book includes stories and maxims dating as far back as 4000 BC.

Included in these are lessons on “how to use deception, how to avoid encirclement by opponents and how a rising power should induce complacency in the old hegemon until the right moment.”

Chinese hardliners also promoted the book of Col. Liu Mingfu, “The China Dream” that is considered to be the inspiration behind current Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies, seen by some observers as increasingly Maoist.

The “assassin’s mace”

According to American researchers, China launched a secret 100-year modernization program that deceived successive U.S. administrations into unknowingly promoting Beijing’s strategy of replacing the U.S.-led world order with a Chinese-dominated economic and political system.

The Chinese strategy is aimed at gaining global economic dominance, and China’s military buildup is but one part. The combined economic, political, and military power is seeking to produce China as a new global hegemon.

According to a U.S. Defense Department report on Chinese military and technological development, the architects of China’s military transformation have placed high priority on the acquisition of so-called shashoujian, or “assassin’s mace” technologies. Traditionally, the “assassin’s mace” refers to a weapon from Chinese folklore that guarantees a small combatant victory over a larger, more powerful opponent. In the military context, “assassin’s mace” refers to a set of asymmetric weapons that allow an inferior power to defeat a seemingly superior adversary by striking at an enemy’s weakest point. The point of “assassin’s mace” was to make a generational leap in military capabilities that can trump the conventional forces of Western powers, but to do so incrementally, so that by the time they achieved their goal, it would be too late for the US to respond to, much less reverse. Such technologies would include “electromagnetic combat superiority” that would allow for “naval victory,” and “tactical laser weapons” that would “be used first in anti-missile defense systems.” Jamming and destroying radar and various communications systems, and the use of computer viruses are also mentioned by the Chinese strategists.