The growing pluralization of Chinese society has made China's foreign policy decision-making more complicated. As a result, traditional state-centric approaches to analysing China's foreign relations may no longer be adequate. A nuanced understanding requires attention to new actors in the formulation and conduct of the country's foreign affairs, including central state-owned enterprises (CSOEs). This article explores the increasingly important role played by Chinese CSOEs in Beijing's policy towards the South China Sea. It hypothesizes that although CSOEs are employed by the state as policy tools, they fulfil different roles in Beijing's South China Sea policy. Some CSOEs mobilize resources to influence state policy; some CSOEs proactively take advantage of state policy when opportunities arise; while other CSOEs are mostly policy takers. In the case of the last category, it is interesting to note that their activities are not just a demonstration of political subjugation to the state; they also combine state-directed political tasks with efforts to seek market opportunities. This article employs three case studies—tourism, energy extraction and infrastructure—to demonstrate how the roles of Chinese business actors vary in China's South China Sea policy.