The ascension of Xi Jinping to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has often been posited as a turning point for China’s policy in the South and East China Sea maritime disputes. As early as 2013, You Ji of the University of New South Wales assessed that Xi had been “instrumental in changing China’s passivity” into an assertive strategy to defend China’s claims. More recently Xue Gong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore has argued that “China has become more assertive in the South China Sea since Xi became General Secretary of the CCP in 2012.” Xi himself seemed to encourage such a reading when he cited South China Sea island construction in his 2017 Party Congress work report declaring China had reached a new era marked by the transition under his leadership “from growing prosperous to getting strong.”
As we will see, the idea that China has pursued its maritime claims more assertively under Xi is accurate. Yet it is also potentially misleading, for China was already on such a trajectory long before Xi took power. It was from 2006 that Beijing began using law enforcement ships to expand its control of large swathes of disputed waters, withdrew from the dispute resolution procedures in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), started production of disputed offshore gas fields, and launched unilateral energy explorations and a campaign of coercion against rival claimants who sought to do the same.
What has really changed in China’s maritime policy since Xi Jinping took power? How has this compared with China’s policy direction over the preceding years? And what is the likely role of the CCP’s “Chairman of Everything” in the observed changes?
China’s stated maritime policy under Xi Jinping has contained three notable elements. The first is the goal of building China into a “maritime great power” (海洋强国), which appeared for the first time in the CCP’s most authoritative political document, the political work report, at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, and was reaffirmed at the 19th in 2017.