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RUSI Commentary, August 11, 2016
China’s determination to gain control or assert its possession over various remote islands in its adjacent seas may seem inexplicable. But there is a perfect logic to what China is doing – much of this relates to the way the country’s communists seek to bolster their domestic legitimacy

The situation in East Asia has become increasingly troubling; for those watching the global economy, the fact that China and Japan, the world’s second and third powers, are engaging in a showdown over a few tiny islands not only seems ludicrous but also reckless, since any potential conflict could do serious damage to precarious recovery from the global financial crisis.

Last week, Japan claimed that a flotilla of more than 230 Chinese fishing vessels and eighteen coastguard ships entered Japanese waters around the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Given their lack of running water and economic activity, it is not even certain that the islets would be afforded island status, especially after the recent finding by the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea. So why do both states want the islands so much and why is China risking the global economy and conflict with Japan for patches of land not much larger than a football pitch? The explanation lies in recent Chinese history and how the Communist Party perceives it.

In 1989, the Communist Party barely survived the Tiananmen Square unrest. Following the crackdown, it developed a three-way strategy, which it has since boldly followed.

First, it enacted a massive ‘patriotic’ education programme, which sought to identify China with the Communist Party. It played up the narrative of victim, pointing to the ‘century of humiliation’ by foreign powers, including European and Japanese imperial interlopers. And while these approaches are based in fact, they miss the point that China the victim has also been China the perpetrator in such cases: it has in its long history attempted to invade and conquer its neighbours, particularly Korea and Vietnam, many times. As Bill Hayton, an expert on Chinese maritime claims, has asserted, disputes about the South China Sea or the Chinese-claimed Diaoyu Islands are really about recovering from the perceived loss of face that China endured in the past. Thus, the public is strongly supportive of the claims, and the insertions of large flotillas into contested waters – such as last week – buttress this Communist Party’s desire to be the sole defender of Chinese claims, and the sole avenger of previous wrongs.

Second, China’s Communist Party decided after crushing the Tiananmen protests that communist ideology was no longer enough to provide legitimacy, and set about a daring innovation in the 1990s – mixing the nationalist agenda with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform, while restraining political reform. In other words, it concluded that if it provided enough refrigerators, televisions and opportunities to travel to exotic destinations, the public would submit to the total rule of the Communist Party. As well as the carrot, it also used the stick of repressing internet freedoms, censoring the media, and curtailing anything that might infringe on the absolutism of the party within the Chinese state. Kerry Brown, a China scholar, notes that President Xi Jinping’s rise has not been at the expense of the party, and although he has attacked its corrupt elements, his purpose is to strengthen the arty.

One only has to note the recent wave of trials of Chinese lawyers, such as Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng, affiliated with political rights’ groups, to conclude that the party is serious about holding power and crushing dissent. However, if the Chinese public is to accept such repression, the party reasons that it must continue to deliver something in the realm of public wealth. The push to reform the economy falls into this category, but it also has a security strategy for harnessing nearby wealth and resources by claiming the valuable South and East China Seas fishing grounds, some of the richest in the world. Attempts to ban Vietnamese and Philippine fishing fleets are part of this strategy. So is the possibility of rich undersea gas fields in the East China Sea, an additional lure. For the party, securing these resources is directly linked to regime security.

Third, the Communist party has developed a strategy to push China into a position of East Asian superiority, and to do this, it has to prise the US from the region. Aware of the ‘Thucydidean Trap’, by which rising powers provoke a conflict with already-dominant powers, China’s strategy would seem to be to go about achieving its objective through indirect means. Looking purely at Beijing’s actions over the past decade, it would seem that Chinese military thinkers have decided the best way to expel the US as a regional power is by incrementally taking de facto control of the trade route that feeds the US’s allies.

Beginning with European ports and Middle Eastern oil terminals, the most strategically sensitive route moves goods and energy products worth $5 trillion annually through the Indian Ocean, past the Malacca Straits and through the South and East China Seas. China’s effort to dominate this vital route is achieved by slicing into the territory of smaller South China Sea states, with each initiative based on the calculation that Washington would not dare risk a war over territories non-essential to the US national interest. And Beijing’s calculations are likely correct. Projecting military power from those islands gives China de facto control of the region’s largest trade route. Enough – Beijing reasons – to compel regional powers to bandwagon with China.

If on the way, it must risk conflict with the US and Japan, China will do so, although it will attempt to avoid direct confrontation. Many of the issues that continue to bedevil the region arose in 1989, as a result of the route the Communist Party took in trying to ensure its survival. Its three-fold strategy of promoting nationalism and economic growth at the expense of political reform, and the development of a greater Chinese strategy for the region, has landed the nation in its current situation.

The inner corridors of power in Beijing see nothing wrong with this grand strategy. After all, it has been highly successful: the party remains dominant in China, and is still closely identified with the health and prosperity of the nation. China’s economic and military growth has allowed it to begin to reorder the region to suit its own preferences. The question is how far will it go, and at what point will it cause an unpredictable reaction from the US, Japan, or neighbouring states. And although no-one outside China can predict this, neither can any Chinese official.

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