China seeks nothing less than to displace the United States as the preeminent power in the Pacific, if not the world. It intends to make a new order that expands the reach of its state-driven economic model. To achieve this vision, China's leaders have characterized the first two decades of the 21st century as a "period of strategic opportunity," during which Xi Jinping's “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation can be realized.
The good news about China’s anti-access/area denial actions in the South China Sea and beyond may be that in apparently selecting a hybrid strategy, China has chosen to operate in the Phase 0/Gray Zone/Shaping area, thus avoiding activity that generates an overt military response. That said, the strategy involves brinksmanship, so proper use of information operations is critical to communicate intentions and avoid miscommunications leading to miscalculations and overt military conflict. Information operations can also cloud Chinese calculations to make preemptive strikes less appealing and more fraught with risk.
Our analysis is built on a foundation of sand. We offer bold proclamations and precise policy proposals designed to cajole, convince, or coerce a hostile nuclear power whose decision making process is utterly opaque to us. We theorize much, and assume more, but we still do not know why the Chinese do what they do. Most critically, we do not know how to find the knowledge we lack. This is an intellectual challenge we have not begun to meet. Understanding Zhongnanhai is a wonderful methodological puzzle—but a puzzle with nuclear stakes. Until we solve this puzzle, I doubt any number of policy prescriptions will be enough to ensure peace in the West Pacific.
Chinese dredging operations add an interesting complication to the debate over sovereignty, control, and conflict in the South China Sea. The Spratly Islands are presently claimed by both China and the Philippines. Each party to the dispute makes claims that are intended to define the interpretation events. However, it is not always the case that these interpretations fit the facts. As part of their efforts to assert their claim to ongoing sovereignty in the area, China is engaging in significant dredging operations there. The Chinese are involved in dredging operations on five different reefs and has created some 2900 acres of land in the Spratlys. This behaviour sits within murky and sometimes undefined legal frameworks but often clashes with Beijing’s official reasoning for their behaviour.
Growing concern over China’s burgeoning military might and seeming willingness to use it has caused many to re-evaluate U.S. Army doctrine and training. Counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare have dominated Western military thought over the past decade of fighting. However, the escalating conflict in the South China Sea has many strategic thinkers considering how to fight a large-scale war once again. One nation often overlooked in the Pacific equation, though, is India and their emerging capabilities in space, and how those emerging capabilities may impact an armed conflict.