Is China Carelessly Overextending Itself?

China is best advised to ensure that efforts to win local disputes don’t end up creating global problems.

Over the past two weeks, Indian media has reported several border incursions along the two states’ disputed Himalayan border .  While the Indian government has downplayed the incidents, Indian strategic commentators have suggested that China is moving to leverage its logistical advantages in the region.

At nearly the same time, China has upped the ante with respect to the Senkaku/Diaoyus, deploying additional maritime and aerial patrols to the area and declaring the islands a “core interest” of Chinese foreign policy.

In both situations, China has a plausible case for legitimacy.  In the East China Sea, China is responding to provocative statements by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe . Border issues with India remain complex, but it is not immediately obvious that China is in the wrong by pressing its territorial claims.

Nevertheless, it is not clear why China has determined to assertively pursue both of these disputes at the same time. Historically, states with wide-ranging security problems are best advised to resolve those problems one at a time, hopefully in isolation with one another. In this case, it’s not completely clear that the same people are making decisions on policy in both the Himalayas and the East China Sea; the Chinese foreign and military policy-making process is sufficiently complicated that local authorities have some influence over border policy.  However, it hardly makes sense for China to antagonize both of its powerful neighbors at once, even if it is in the right in both cases.

It doesn’t take a genius to see the strategic logic of a strong India-Japan relationship. Tokyo and New Delhi have each other on speed dial, and in any case Washington is surely eager to connect the call . Some Indian commentators have already called for more robust responses, including calibrating Indian support for China’s maritime disputants in accordance to the situation on the border.  Japan’s moves to negotiate its long-running border disputes with Russia put the Chinese problem into stark relief. Whether or not Japan and Russia manage to finally secure a peace treaty, the effort indicates that Tokyo takes seriously the need to make its international crises manageable.

China is one of a very few countries for which “regional security” entails managing conflicts in widely dispersed parts of the globe.  While a Japan-India axis may form absent any direct Chinese provocation, Beijing is best advised to ensure that efforts to win local disputes don’t end up creating global problems.