China’s socialist ideology has evolved into a kind of muscular nationalism. Every state needs a story to tell its people, and China has been looking for the right story pretty since the fall of the last empire in 1911, and it has gone through various versions of it. Under Mao it was utopia tomorrow in exchange for sacrifice today. But that really doesn’t work anymore. From 1989 onwards, it was: if you stay out of politics, you’ll get rich. And that’s coming to an end.
So the story now is: how does the Communist party justify staying in power when it is clearly not delivering communism? It stays in power by arguing that all of China’s troubles stem from the outside, from hostile foreigners – beginning in the mid-19th century, the Century of Humiliation. So the idea is that China needs the Communist Party to defend it from hostile foreigners, and restore China to its rightful position of greatness.
Xi Jinping’s slogan is ‘The China Dream’. What is the China Dream? It’s the dream of national rejuvenation and a return to power and dignity on the world stage. For anyone trying to execute that dream, the United States and its influence in the neighbourhood is a major issue, and China certainly measures itself, in terms of global influence, against the United States constantly.
The claim to the South China Sea actually predates the Communist party – it first appeared under the nationalists, and claims all of the South China Sea as a kind of Chinese bath. There are a lot of other countries around the South China Sea with similar historic claims, so clearly it is an extremely aggressive claim, but it plays very well in China, where nationalism is on the rise.
There are potentially very large economic assets at stake – hydrocarbons, and one of the world’s richest fishing grounds. A lot of this contest has been fought out between fishing boats. The other attraction for China in exercising muscle in the South China Sea is that most of the other littoral countries are US allies – so by picking fights with smaller neighbours who are US allies, you’re picking a proxy fight with America, stopping just short of providing an excuse for an armed reaction from the United States. If you did it in the East China Sea, you might get into a straight fight with Japan, which would not be a good thing. You’d probably lose, and the United States would certainly come in.
But when you sink a Filipino fishing boat, or tow an oil rig into Vietnamese coastal waters, it’s a provocation just short of a casus belli, which allows you to create facts on the sea without anyone feeling it appropriate to fight you over it. The same is true of the island-building, and the installation of military bases on those islands. It pretty much gives China the capacity to control shipping through the South China Sea, where a huge amount of the world’s trade transits. So it’s laying down a carpet of control.