China’s rising-power exuberance is becoming a problem.
There’s long been bipartisan policy support in the United States for emphasizing cooperation with China while minimizing competition. President Barack Obama, who has said that Sino-American relations would ‘shape the 21st Century,’ subscribes to this precept. But it was also generally assumed that a re-emerging China would be intelligent and self-interested. Instead, China’s recent diplomatic and military assertiveness, apparently fuelled by overconfidence, is creating consternation—especially over freedom of the seas.
It’s logical that Chinese leaders would want a protracted period of quiescence rather than to draw attention to a gradual military build-up. China’s long history has focused on continental power and China’s eager, ‘let’s-do-business’ attitude has been successful around the globe.
But as China has become more influential, it has also become uncharacteristically assertive in the diplomatic arena. This assertiveness is nowhere more evident than with its naval power, and is prompting many to ask if it is now verging on the reckless, particularly over the South China Sea.
Consider four separate points that on the surface seem unrelated but which all point to China’s insatiable expectations—if not an actual ‘string of pearls’ strategy—in the maritime sea lanes of the Pacific and Indian Oceans:
–Professor Wang Jisi, one of China’s most gifted academics dealing with the United States, wrote this month that whether conflict erupts between the region’s major powers may depend on the role of the two navies;
–Another leading academic, Shen Dingli of Fudan University, extended the logic of the recent official assertion that the South China Sea is a ‘core interest’ of China when he wrote that: ‘When the US ponders the idea of deploying its nuclear aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea, very close to China, shouldn’t China have the same feeling as the US did when the Soviet Union deployed missiles in Cuba?’
–A Chinese exchange student engaging in an intensive Washington scholarship programme asked recently whether conflict was inevitable between a rising China and a declining United States;
–And one of the highest-ranking figures in the foreign policymaking of President Hu Jintao’s administration recently waved his finger at a senior US official and said, ‘I know what you’re up to,’ in an apparent reference to US diplomatic engagement with a neighbouring country.
Alone, any one of these incidents could be dismissed. But what’s troubling is that such statements are part of a trend in Chinese statements that go beyond arrogance. How else can one explain China’s willingness to countenance Pyongyang’s deadly mini-submarine sinking of a South Korean naval vessel this spring? China also condemned a planned US-South Korea regional naval exercise designed to send North Korea a warning that its murderous aggression must have consequences.