The South China Sea (SCS) has emerged as something of a proxy for the adjustments underway between the US and China. I do not think either is looking for trouble. War by design is highly improbable. Despite their bluster, China’s leaders know that war with the US can only have one outcome and place the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s most vital interest—its hold on power – in great jeopardy. China is not reckless. President Xi Jinping is a ‘princeling’; the CCP is his patrimony and I don’t think he will gamble with it. But rivalry is intrinsic to any major power relationship and nether will forswear pursuing their interests, at times robustly.
The CCP is today confronted with fundamental questions about itself as it embarks on complex second phase of reforms. These reforms must square the circle: give the market a larger role in crucial areas of the economy to maintain competitiveness, while preserving central political control by the Party. Can it be done? No one really knows. Social and labour unrest are endemic at the local level. The anti-corruption campaign has unsettled CCP cadres in every sector. But we should not assume failure. Unlike the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the CCP has proven to be an extremely adaptable creature, the latest and most successful iteration of a series of political experiments in search of wealth and power to resist western predations dating from the late Qing dynasty.
President Xi Jinping has termed the CCP’s role as leading the “Great Rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation after a century of weakness and humiliation. But the outcome of reforms, even if completely successful, will be slower growth, as the CCP has itself acknowledged. The “Great Rejuvenation” must therefore be as much, if not more, outwardly than internally directed. Externally, it is increasingly an essentially revanchist narrative. Herein lies the importance of the SCS to China. Put simply, it is the least risky way of putting some shreds of meat on the bare bones of the historical narrative by which the CCP justifies its right to rule.
The US defines its interests in the SCS in terms of upholding international law and freedom of navigation. These are important interests but not of the same order as the CCP’s primary interest which is existential: the legitimacy and ultimately the survival of the CCP. The US has made clear that the US-Japan alliance covers the Senkaku (or Diaoyu in Chinese) islands; it has been ambiguous about the US-Philippines alliance, and hence in effect made clear, that it does not cover the disputed areas in the SCS. War in support of the principal US East Asian ally is credible, if unlikely. War over rocks, shoals and reefs would be absurd.
Second, a piece I found via the always excellent Sinocism newsletter. I know nothing of the author, so I'm not being swayed by reputation or affiliation with a prestigious think tank or university. It's just a really smart take on China's perspective:
The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region...
...Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America's imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewards—the Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.
Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese's ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.