TWQ: Can China Defend a "Core Interest" in the South China Sea? - Spring 2011

Déjà vu surrounds reports that Beijing has claimed a ‘‘core interest’’ in the South China Sea. High-ranking Chinese officials reportedly asserted such an interest during a private March 2010 meeting with two visiting U.S. dignitaries, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Jeffrey Bader. Subsequently, in an interview with The Australian, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disclosed that Chinese delegates reaffirmed Beijing’s claim at the Second U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a gathering held in Beijing in May 2010. Conflicting accounts have since emerged about the precise context and what was actually said at these meetings. Since then, furthermore, Chinese officials have refrained from describing the South China Sea in such formal, stark terms in a public setting.

Assume for the sake of discussion that Beijing is pursuing a core interest in the South China Sea as a matter of policy. Declaring such an  interest would seemingly elevate the strategic importance of that body of water to a level reserved for Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang—territory that is integral to China’s vision of itself as a nation and that must be protected at all costs. This represents a political goal of astonishing scope. Defending it would presumably warrant diplomatic and military efforts of the utmost magnitude. But can the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) follow through, and how?

Does Beijing possess the military means, strategy, and warfighting prowess to uphold an interest of such overriding importance? Assessing existing and nascent Chinese capabilities will help policymakers and analysts determine whether Beijing’s ends in the South China Sea lie within its military means. If not, it is important to examine the time and resources China must invest to mount a credible defense of its core interests. Such a benchmark will also suggest how key stakeholders in the region can respond to an increasingly ambitious Chinese policy without provoking an overreaction from Beijing.

Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes