Does China have a strategy toward the South China Sea? I test three hypotheses about Chinese strategy—regional hegemony, gray-zone coercion, and bureaucratic politics—against seven major developments in Chinese policy between 2009 and 2016. None of these hypotheses offers an accurate or complete explanation of Chinese strategy. I argue that China has a dialectic and arduous strategy of balancing the goals of safeguarding rights and maintaining stability. But such a balance is inherently dynamic and frequently elusive. It was not until after 2016 that Beijing began to master the art of strategic balance and achieve an upper hand in the long struggle over the South China Sea.