We’ve had a fair bit of coverage recently on the question of whether the Obama administration is starting to push back against China after it came in for widespread criticism early on for supposedly appeasing Beijing.
Further evidence that it is came shortly after we published a strongly worded (and convincing) op-ed by Patrick Cronin arguing that China was going too far with its South China Sea claims and threatening the freedom of movement that's a lifeline of free trade in the region.
Cronin is right that China’s decision to claim the sea as a core interest (alongside Tibet and Taiwan) is troubling and arbitrary, with Beijing claiming, as he notes, the ‘right to control navigation and research activities, not just fishing and seabed resources, within their Exclusive Economic Zones.’
And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appears to agree, saying Friday in Hanoi that resolving territorial disputes off China’s southern coast is ‘a leading diplomatic priority.’ The announcement will have infuriated China as much as it will have pleased Vietnam, which has for some time now been battling (in diplomatic terms) an increasingly assertive Beijing that has claimed 80 percent of the South China Sea, including the disputed Spratlys and Paracels and having its vessels ram Vietnamese fishing boats.
Clinton’s comments came just days before planned military exercises with South Korea involving the aircraft carrier the USS George Washington and F-22 stealth fighters among other aircraft, exercises that have also irritated Beijing.
So how will China respond? A good indicator of the way the situation is viewed by policymakers in China came with a Global Times opinion piece on the ‘American shadow over South China Sea.’ The Times warned that it will be difficult to maintain regional stability if South-east Asian nations allow themselves to ‘be controlled by the strategic guidance of the US’ and warned: 'With growing economic power, China and the US may encounter more clashes in China's adjacent sea.'
I asked Dan Lynch, a China specialist with the University of Southern California, for his take on the issue, and he was in no doubt about the importance of what’s unfolding.
‘The United States has now effectively declared that its national interest can’t accommodate exclusive Chinese sovereignty over the South China Sea territories’, thereby willfully frustrating a key Chinese Communist Party ambition, he told me.
Lynch said this will likely have a two-stage effect, with Chinese leaders set to be ‘extremely angry’ and ‘searching for ways to counter the US move’ but probably not coming up with anything effective. ‘The thing to watch out for in this phase would be radical Chinese steps that end up doing China more harm than good.’
And the second stage? He suggested:
‘As it becomes more widely apparent that the US has blocked Chinese attainment of a self-declared core national interest, China will suffer a loss of international prestige—a major blow to the reputation of a realist state striving to accelerate its rise through the inspiration of awe, near and far. China will no longer seem so invincible.It will, in fact, appear humiliated, depending on how the development is spun.’
So what can China do now? Lynch told me it’s difficult to say, simply because there isn’t really a logical move that Beijing can make.
‘I note that the foreign minister in his statement tried to appeal to pan-Asianism.That will likely fall very flat…So we could get a series of seemingly disconnected tactics that ultimately fail to change the basic situation,’ he said.
I also asked Lynch, who has studied Chinese state propaganda in some depth, how the leadership is likely to respond for a domestic audience, and whether it will be tempted to ramp up the rhetoric over the issue.
He said the Communist Party will have to ‘be careful not to rouse too MUCH anger among Chinese citizens precisely because there's not much it can do about the situation. If it does decide to make a lot of hay out of the development, it will be a mistake, because it would put the limitations of its power on display for the Chinese people to see.’