China’s leaders have a grand strategy for the South China Sea. They want to control all of it, because they see it as China’s own property. And they are prepared to defend every speck of land—real or artificial — in it.
That’s according to statements by the country’s high-ranking officials recently—vowing to defend every “island and rock” that belongs to China.
But there’s a fundamental problem with Beijing’s grand strategy: it will never succeed in aligning China’s aspirations with its capabilities and resources, and is therefore doomed to fail badly.
That’s what has happened with the grand strategies of previous rising powers, and it will happen with China now.
A failure of Beijing’s South China Sea strategy is a far more serious threat to the global economy and financial markets than the on-going trade disputes.
Yale University Professor John Lewis Gaddis defines grand strategy as “the alignment of potentially unlimited aspirations with necessarily limited capabilities.” That’s easier said than done, for a fundamental reason pointed in every introductory economics textbook: desires and aspirations are unlimited, while capabilities are limited.
That’s why a nation – or an individual, for that matter — should scale back on aspirations to the means available to achieve them, according to Gaddis. “If you seek ends beyond your means, then sooner or later you’ll have to scale back your ends to fit your means.”