In recent months, China has adopted an increasingly aggressive posture across the Asia-Pacific region – from provoking fights with neighbours in the South China Sea, to introducing provocative new military systems, to holding joint military exercises with Pakistan on India’s border.
Why now? The more assertive Chinese posture is likely the product of both a permissive regional environment that presents Beijing with the opportunity to assert itself, and its own domestic turmoil, which provides Chinese policymakers a reason to foment distracting confrontation abroad.
China’s regional environment has grown more accommodating this year as Japan and the United States have become increasingly unable to fulfil their traditional roles of balancing Chinese power in the Asia-Pacific. Tokyo’s troubles began when a number of public scandals led to growing dissatisfaction with the Kan administration. These problems were compounded by the devastating March 11 earthquake, tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis, which together ensured that Japan would be wholly preoccupied with domestic concerns for the foreseeable future.
The onset of the Arab Spring, meanwhile, forced yet another US administration to turn its attention to the Middle East at the expense of the Asia-Pacific, a trend exacerbated by the decision to intervene militarily in Libya. Another consequence of the Arab Spring was that the Obama administration became more dependent on China’s cooperation in exerting pressure on Arab strongmen through multilateral forums like the UN Security Council. All this has meant the United States has been in too weak a position diplomatically to mount a challenge to China’s assertiveness.
But the Arab Spring hasn’t just distracted the United States – it has also had repercussions that have been felt all the way to China. Although most outside observers dismissed the calls for a Jasmine Revolution as a relatively minor nuisance for the Communist Party, China’s leaders still felt concerned enough to undertake a widespread crackdown. And, as the Communist Party has moved to stamp out domestic opposition and potential unrest, its leaders have become desperate to divert the public’s attention away from its ramped up repression. Confrontation abroad is a proven method for accomplishing this feat.
As a result, a toxic combination is in place: a Chinese government in need of confrontation coupled with a more permissive Asia-Pacific. And these conditions have only become more pronounced as the summer has gone on. Japan, for example, has seen yet more political upheaval with the resignation of Prime Minister Naoto Kan and the ensuing leadership contest, all as it tries to grapple with the massive post-disaster recovery effort. Washington, meanwhile, continues to be heavily invested in the Middle East even as it has been gripped by political paralysis at home. This comes against the backdrop of cuts to the US defence budget, which bodes ill for the United States’ ability to restrain Chinese power in the future.
Developments elsewhere in the region also seem to be working in China’s favour. For example, the so-called reset in US-Russia relations has steadily deteriorated in recent weeks, pushing the Kremlin to engage rather than restrain China. In India, the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and the public outrage that followed, forced Indian policymakers to devote significant time and energy to strengthening internal security. This comes at a time when the Manmohan Singh government’s credibility is in tatters after a string of corruption scandals and the high-profile protest led by activist Anna Hazare.
Despite stamping out calls for a Jasmine Revolution, the Chinese government continues to face an unsettling domestic situation. July saw renewed violence from the Muslim population in Xiajiang Province, resulting in Beijing dispatching its elite counterterrorism unit to the area. This was followed by a high-speed train crash at the end of July that prompted what was initially a half-hearted government response. The government’s fumbling reaction enraged many Chinese and media outlets. Unfortunately for the Communist Party, these troubles have come just as it prepares for its leadership transition, scheduled to take place next year.
As things stand, both the opportunity and rationale for China’s assertiveness remain firmly intact. Until there is change at home and abroad expect Beijing’s confrontational diplomacy to continue.
Zachary Keck is an assistant editor at e-International Relations and a foreign policy analyst at Examiner.com. His commentary has appeared at Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, World Politics Review and Small Wars Journal among other outlets.