"The gains from control over a few uninhabited rocks are vastly outweighed by the risks."
Here's a comment by a respected British commentator that perfectly summarises the bafflement of outsiders about China's territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Face, nationalism, historical grievances, anti-Americanism, anti-Japanese sentiments, regional dominance or hegemony ... Critics have marshalled one or more of these elements to explain China's behaviour. Or, China is Germany 1914 all over again. Funny how no one ever cited Bismarck's unified Germany after 1870, whose diplomacy secured European peace for a generation.
To a disinterested observer, all those China "explanations" must seem unconvincing or unsatisfying. First, is Beijing staking its foreign policy on nationalist feelings over the Diaoyu Islands? Or is it the other way around: the nationalist/historical issue over the Diaoyus is only part of an overall foreign policy - but doesn't drive or explain it? One thing you know for sure is that imposing an "air defence identification zone" that includes the Diaoyus is not an ad hoc, one- step-at-a-time dumb chess move. It's part of an overall strategic conception with its own goal, purpose and rationale.
Let's start with the Hobbesian thesis: every country feels threatened or insecure; China especially so. Despite its new-found wealth, its military can't fight overseas other than invading Taiwan. Its shipping and supply lanes are patrolled by a powerful rival, the US, and it's encircled geographically by countries allied to the US. Its hold on Tibet and Xinjiang are constantly challenged. It can buy client states in Africa and Latin America but has no genuine defence allies. The overwhelming foreign policy goal of Beijing is therefore not dominance but security. Within this framework, sometimes it goes along with other world powers, such as over Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions; sometimes it provokes them, such as with the air defence zone. Sometimes, it just miscalculates. So is China a status quo or revisionist power? The best answer is: it doesn't want to overthrow the US-led international security and economic architecture, but demands adjustments within it.