Ah, the Western Pacific. That the South China Sea is probably the future battleground of the next major international conflict is probably a given. The battleground of the 20th Century, Robert Kaplan reminds us, was Europe; the battleground of the 21st century will be the East Asia seascape. So it is probably important to understand China's maritime strategy and what drives it. STRATFOR does a good job here:
"Like other claimant countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines, China's long-term goal is to use its growing naval capabilities to control the islands and islets within the South China Sea and thus the natural resources and the strategic position they afford. When China was militarily weak, it supported the concept of putting aside sovereignty concerns and carrying out joint development, aiming to reduce the potential conflicts from overlapping claims while buying time for its own naval development. Meanwhile, to avoid dealing with a unified bloc of counterclaimants, Beijing adopted a one-to-one negotiation approach with individual countries on their own territorial claims, without the need to jeopardize its entire nine-dash line claim. This allowed Beijing to remain the dominant partner in bilateral negotiations, something it feared it would lose in a more multilateral forum.China's naval expansion is probably precipitated by wealth and the security of their borders. But, of course, it has caused countries -- the Phillipines most recently -- to react. And then there is President Obama's strategic pivot Pacificwards. More here.
"Despite the lack of legal recognition for the nine-dash line and the constant friction it engenders, Beijing has little ability now to move away from the claim. With the rising international attention and regional competition over the South China Sea, the Chinese public -- which identifies the waters within the nine-dash line as territorial waters -- is pressuring Beijing to take more assertive actions. This has left China in an impossible position: When Beijing attempts to portray joint developments as evidence that other countries recognize China's territorial claims, the partner countries balk; when it tries to downplay the claims in order to manage international relations, the Chinese population protests (and in the case of Chinese fishermen, often act on their own in disputed territory, forcing the government to support them rhetorically and at times physically). Any effort to appeal to Beijing's domestic constituency would risk aggravating foreign partners, or vice versa."