Why China’s ‘Bully’ Strategy in the South China Sea (and Beyond) Has Failed


Conventional wisdom has long painted the Chinese as strategic and methodical planners, masters of statecraft with great foresight. The West, and the US in particular, is hopeless in comparison. For many strategists, we aren’t even on the same board: Chinese are playing Go while the West plays checkers.

It’s time to put that shibboleth aside. After misjudging the balance of power following the Great Recession of the late 2000s — overestimating the decline of the United States — China has engaged in a series of confrontations in the East and South China Sea. These engagements have produced more problems than successes. Moreover, Beijing has doubled-down on this behavior, unleashing a barrage of threats and practicing high-handed diplomacy toward its neighbors. This is not visionary or strategic genius; in fact, it looks downright dumb.

South Korea was one target of China’s offensive rhetoric. In response to Seoul’s decision to implement the US-manufactured Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) — a missile defense system that aims to counter North Korean capabilities — China has vented its displeasure, using economic and political tools to hammer home its point. China opposes any deeper US-ROK defense cooperation, and missile defense is a focus of its displeasure. China has blocked South Korea’s media exports, including popular television dramas and pop music known as Hallyu. A recent article in Global Times, a hardline Chinese news outlet, reported that programs involving South Korean stars would be blocked, and that exporting of South Korean culture will inevitably feel the chill in China if Seoul sticks to THAAD deployment. The article concluded, ominously, that “South Korea is asking for trouble.”