Ever since China released their 9-dash-line interpretation of territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, it has appeared to many outside observers that the legal ambiguity of the claims has been a deliberate strategy. Instead of providing a detailed legal claim to the South China Sea's many islands, reefs, and atolls (which would be very hard to pull off), China has preferred to make incremental progress "reclaiming" reefs. This way, China can negotiate each individual conflict one-on-one with another claimant, a situation that gives China considerably more leverage. A recent investigation of internal divisions in China offers a fresh take on this strategy of ambiguity. Here's Feng Zhang:
[I]n reality, it’s not at all clear that China itself really knows what it wants to achieve in the South China Sea. Broadly speaking, there are three schools of thought among Chinese analysts about optimal policies toward the region: let’s call them realists, hardliners, and moderates [...]
China’s realists believe that the fundamentals of China’s current South China Sea policy are sound, with no adjustment needed. They recognize the diplomatic and reputational costs incurred, but tend to slight them because they value China’s physical presence and material capability much more highly than its image abroad [...] But they are uncertain about what to do with the newly constructed islands. Should Beijing push for a new round of military installations including placing offensive weapons systems, or are defensive equipments really sufficient for the status quo?
A second school of thought — the hardliners — provides alarming answers to the questions realists haven’t yet answered. Not only do they think China should present the seven new islands —constructed out of existing features, including Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef — as faits accompli to the outside world, but China should further expand its territorial and military reach in the South China Sea [...]
Moderates argue that China needs to gradually clarify the Nine-Dash Line. Maintaining deliberate ambiguity would simply make the map a historical burden and an unnecessary obstacle to reaching diplomatic compromise. In their view, it is counterproductive to interpret the map as a territorial demarcation line, because doing so would make China an adversary of most Southeast Asian states as well as the United States.
If this more nuanced understanding of Chinese territorial and maritime strategy provides some hope to the environmental community that destructive island building will cease if moderates succeed in scaling back reef reclamation, Zhang throws cold water on the idea:
The moderates differ much from the realists and the hardliners. But the three share an extremely important area of agreement: the necessity of island-building. During my extensive conversations with leading Chinese scholars and government officials since last year, I have not come across a single person who would say island building is a mistake.
Needless to say, that is an unfortunate point of agreement for the South China Sea's marine ecosystem. China is not the only country engaging in reef reclamation, of course, but if China doesn't scale back, others are unlikely to do so on their own. All of this places even more scrutiny on the Law of the Sea Tribunal's forthcoming decision, expected this fall. The Philippines v. China case has the potential to affirmatively reject the 9-dash line. That may not in itself prevent continued island building, but it would help build a case that the region's sensitive ecosystems should be a point of cooperation, not conflict.