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.
It’s increasingly clear that Beijing may have misinterpreted a relatively passive but definitely welcoming set of international reactions to China’s rise. And the combination of China’s aggressive naval actions and maritime territorial claims suggests an alarming indicator: Chinese assertiveness over its region is growing as fast as China’s wealth and perceived power trajectory. Beijing’s unwelcome intent appears to give notice that China is opting out of the Global Commons, and that the Western Pacific is not to be accessible to all, but instead increasingly part of China’s exclusive sphere of influence.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in China’s attitude over the South China Sea, which recently has been defined as a ‘core interest’—the same phrase Chinese use to refer to Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. In the process, China is in effect dismissing the international concept of the Global Commons, which refers to the maritime, air, space and cyberspace domains that comprise the circulatory system of our globalized world. Because the Global Commons hold together the international world order based on near-uncontested access, the rule of law and freedom of manoeuvre, China’s challenging of these principles puts it at direct odds with the United States.
Indeed, China seems to regard the maritime global commons in a proprietary fashion. For a given area, the Chinese wish either to dominate it or for others to stay away; in effect, in the Chinese view, there’s no ‘commons.’ China calling the South China Sea a ‘core concern’ is an attempt to place clear, Chinese-declared limits on the ability of the international community to assert its rights under international law.
China has two types of arbitrary claims: an assertion that China’s territorial seas extend into much of the South China Sea and the more recent claim that they have the right to control navigation and research activities, not just fishing and seabed resources, within their Exclusive Economic Zones. If not challenged, China’s assertive incrementalism has international legal risks, since international law is built on norms.
In contrast, long-standing US diplomatic and military doctrine has been explicit that navies—including China’s—have every right to operate on the high seas, even including in the territorial waters of other states. In support of this doctrine, Washington has attempted to establish a strong and open dialogue with the Chinese military. China, on the other hand, sees US operations inside the first island chain as impinging on its sovereignty, just as it has a very expansive interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as to its authority within its own (and contested) Exclusive Economic Zones. China’s combination of its international legal strategies with naval force is telling: unlike the other claimants to the South China Sea, China backs up its words with military force.
The US Navy remains the strongest and only true blue-water naval force in the world and is the enabler and enforcer of much of the Global Commons, a system of free trade and unfettered economic and political access. As such, it appears to be the object of a different Chinese worldview, one of limited access for others and exclusive access for China. Meanwhile, the result of China’s asymmetric anti-access and area-denial strategy is a growing Navy-killing array of ever more capable anti-ship missiles and other weapons. Beijing is trying to establish the precedent for limited access on its own terms and diminished freedom of navigation.
Time would be well spent in developing strategies, capacities and interoperability with allies and partners in the region. A parallel international emphasis on ensured access to the Global Commons would remind that the international community expects a rules-based system, and not one based on arbitrary uses of power and exertions of ownership. Freedom of the Global Commons provides a rationale for greater cooperation among like-minded countries, including support for partner navies and Air Forces in the region.
At the same time, the United States should step up naval and air cooperation with regional partners. Options include freedom of navigation missions; anti-submarine warfare practice; missile defence collaboration; and non-traditional missions such as humanitarian assistance and disaster response as well as counter-piracy.
While Beijing will want to stipulate that it is, after all, simply asserting its own Monroe Doctrine, a strong Navy and Air Force working in tandem with allies and partners is one of the most effective reminders that the analogy is specious, and that the maritime approaches to East Asia are Commons that must be preserved for access by all.
Some might protest that assertive actions will play into the hands of hardliners in the People’s Liberation Army. China’s recent penchant for aggressive action would argue otherwise. The United States and its allies should promote and support an international legal and security environment that induces China to choose cooperation over confrontation and recklessness. Beijing needs to be reminded that all parties are prepared for useful dialogue and welcome opportunities for meaningful cooperation with China, but that aggressive behavior will be met with strength, the necessary bulwark for effective discussions.
In short: talk to China, organize the region and preserve US and allied maritime and aerospace power. It’s in everybody’s interests.
Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Advisor and Asia Security Program Senior Director at the Center for a New American Security; Paul S. Giarra is President of Global Strategies and Transformation.