Bill Hayton: What the West doesn’t get about China


Beijing’s South China Sea ambitions encompass defense, trade — and pride

A U.S. Navy F-18 fighter jet lands on the USS Carl Vinson following a patrol of the South China Sea. © AP
The question of what China actually wants in the South China Sea is surprisingly little-studied in the West. Too many international analysts seem happy to make assumptions about its strategic and tactical motivations without reference to Chinese sources.

A preoccupation among U.S. strategists about freedom of navigation, the safety of allies and the maintenance of a rules-based order dominates most English-language writing about the dispute. Too often they project the same motivations onto the “other” and interpret Chinese actions accordingly.

Official Chinese documents paint a different picture. China’s white paper on military strategy two years ago identified the major threats facing the country as “hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism,” and stated that the military’s top priority is “to safeguard [China’s] national unification, territorial integrity and development interests.”

While the U.S. analysts are focused on access through the South China Sea as part of the “global commons,” the Chinese focus is on defending it as part of its inherent territory. My research has shown this historical narrative to be baseless. Nonetheless, Western analysts need to take it much more seriously to understand what is causing the disputes there.