China has moved a massive oil-drilling rig into a part of the South China Sea that is claimed by both China and Vietnam. Ships from the two countries have rammed into each other and fired water cannons at each other. Recently, Vietnamese workers rioted and burned down Chinese factories in various cities in Vietnam. What is the Chinese strategy behind these actions?

In the 1980s, after China turned to market mechanisms to foster economic development, Deng Xiaoping warned his compatriots to eschew external adventures that might jeopardize internal development. In 2007, President Hu Jintao told the 17th Party Congress that China should invest more in soft power, and China has spent billions of dollars in that effort. This is a smart strategy for a country making enormous strides in economic and military power. China has sought to reduce the fear and the tendencies to balance Chinese power that might otherwise grow among its neighbors.

But below the top level there flows a strong current of nationalism, both in the bureaucracy and in the blogosphere, that serves as a substitute for public opinion. At that level, Chinese opinion is more impatient.

While China spends billions of yuan in efforts to increase its soft or attractive power in Asia, its actions in the South China Sea contradict its own message. I have asked Chinese friends and officials why they follow such a counter-productive strategy. The formal answer I usually get first is that China inherited historical territorial claims, including a map from the Nationalist period with a nine-dashed, U-shaped line that creates a deep pocket into the South China Sea. With technology opening access to underwater resources and fisheries in the area, it is impossible to give up this patrimony.

But China has never been clear about the exact location of the nine dashes on that U-shaped line, nor about whether their claims refer to only certain land features or to more extensive continental shelves and seas. When asked why they do not make this clear, my Chinese interlocutors sometimes say that it would raise difficult nationalist issues at home, and it would require difficult political and bureaucratic compromises.

In 2002, China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) agreed on a legally nonbinding code of conduct for managing such disputes, but, as a large power, China believes it will do better in bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations with small countries. That belief was behind China’s pressure on Cambodia in 2012 and Myanmar this year to prevent an ASEAN communiqué related to a reinforced code of conduct. But this is a mistaken strategy. As a large power, China will have great weight in any circumstance, and it could reduce its self-inflicted damage by agreeing to a code. Instead, nationalism is pressing the Chinese government to follow a counter-productive strategy.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “The Future of Power.”

Photo by San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives


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