, Volume 92, Number 4

Katherine Morton
China’s expanding presence in the South China Sea is now a major source of escalating tensions leading to a spiral of confrontation with the United States and the littoral states of east Asia. Under these conditions, conventional analysis suggests that serious conflict is almost inevitable. This article provides an alternative perspective by situating China’s growing ambition within the broader transformation of maritime order in the contemporary era. On the basis of a new interpretation of maritime order, the study provides a deeper examination of China’s motivations in relation to the maritime disputes, US–China strategic competition, and Xi Jinping’s new strategy to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The analysis of the legal, strategic and political dimensions of China’s positioning in the South China Sea suggests that maritime nationalism rather than the quest for maritime hegemony is a central motivation driving Chinese actions. A second important insight is that the current approach is strengthening China’s control, but undermining its legitimacy in the eyes of other major powers and stakeholders. By focusing on legitimacy as an organizing principle in maritime affairs, it becomes clear that the Chinese leadership stands to gain from integrating its ambition more fully into the evolving maritime order.

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