China’s recent moves in the East and South China Seas – various military deployments, policy proclamations, provocative naval maneuvers and rhetorical stridency – pose serious challenges for how Sinologists have traditionally perceived China and its foreign policy pursuits.
The conventional wisdom has long been that China is primarily focused on its domestic imperatives, including urgent tasks dealing with corruption, endemic pollution, and restructuring of inefficient state-owned industries. For decades now, it has been widely accepted that a benign international environment is a critical requirement for maintaining a sustained domestic focus. When there have been incidents in the past – such an encounter in 2001, when an American reconnaissance aeroplane was intercepted by an overzealous Chinese fighter pilot – it is often the case that the leadership in Beijing and Washington had to work carefully behind the scenes to untangle the mess created by nationalist and poorly co-ordinated elements in the military or border protection units. Unanticipated accidents and incidents were the worry, not premeditated gambits.
Most of these previous incidents were seen in isolation and not part of a larger orchestrated strategy designed to push against the status quo in the maritime domain. In the past, when a new map or territorial interpretation was promulgated by someone in the vast Chinese bureaucracy, it often caught senior Chinese leaders unawares. In the aftermath, one of the primary objectives was usually to enable them to save face.