Nor should we overlook honor as a motive animating Beijing's actions. Recouping China's honor and dignity after a "century of humiliation" at the hands of seaborne conquerors was a prime mover for Chinese actions in 1974 and 1979. It remains so today. The China seas constitute part of what the Chinese regard as their country's historical periphery. China must make itself preeminent in these expanses.
Expectations are sky-high among the Chinese populace. Having regularly described their maritime territorial claims as a matter of indisputable sovereignty, having staked their own and the country's reputation on wresting away control of contested expanses, and having roused popular sentiment with visions of seafaring grandeur, Chinese leaders will walk back their claims at their peril. They must deliver -- one way or another.
And they have the means to do so. China has amassed overpowering naval and military superiority over any individual Southeast Asian competitor. The Philippines possesses no air force to speak of, while retired U.S. Coast Guard cutters are its strongest combatant ships. Vietnam, by contrast, shares a border with China and fields a formidable army. Last year, Hanoi announced plans to buttress its naval might by purchasing six Russian-built Kilo-class diesel submarines armed with wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles. A Kilo squadron will supply Vietnam's navy a potent "sea-denial" option. But Russia has not yet delivered the subs, meaning that Hanoi can mount only feeble resistance to any Chinese naval offensive. That's still more reason for China to lock in its gains now, before Southeast Asian rivals start pushing back effectively.
So a window of opportunity remains open for Beijing -- for now. Chinese diplomacy recently thwarted efforts to rally ASEAN behind a "code of conduct" in the South China Sea. Washington has announced plans to "rebalance" the U.S. Navy, shifting about 60 percent of fleet assets to the Pacific and Indian Ocean theaters. But the rebalancing is a modest affair. More than half of the U.S. Navy is already in the theater, and the rebalancing will take place in slow motion, spanning the next eight years.
Nor will the four-vessel U.S. littoral combat ship flotilla destined for Singapore (the first one is scheduled to arrive next spring) right the balance in Southeast Asia. These are not vessels designed to do battle against the likes of the PLA Navy. But having established the principle that most of the U.S. Navy should call the Pacific and Asia home, Washington can always speed up the rebalancing process, shift more forces, and even negotiate base access in or around Southeast Asia. Beijing knows that.
Beijing may have concluded that patient diplomacy will forfeit its destiny in the South China Sea. In Chinese eyes, it's better to act now -- and preempt the competition. The lesson of 1974: Timing is everything.