Chinaâ€™s strategy toward the South China Sea, if there is one, is hard to read. On the one hand, Beijing insists on a diplomatic approach of negotiation to the resolution of disputes over sovereignty and maritime rights with other claimant states. On the other hand, in the most recent round of tensions since 2009, Beijing has taken a notably power-centred approach to establishing de facto control over maritime features, raising regional suspicion and even fear of Chinese domination. Chinaâ€™s new assertiveness, as reflected in the Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines in 2012, in the oil rig incident with Vietnam in 2014, and in industrial-scale land reclamation since 2014, has been at the centre of regional tensions. What exactly is China trying to achieve in the South China Sea? Is it only concerned with protecting its perceived rights from challenges from Southeast Asian claimant states? Or does it have a larger strategic plan for a hegemonic leadership contest with the United States? Indeed, does it have a coherent strategy toward the South China Sea? This article explores these questions from the perspective of Chinaâ€™s domestic debates about the South China Sea during the latest round of tensions since 2009.