China’s Folly of Self-Containment

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China’s Folly of Self-Containment

Don’t blame the US Pivot; China is containing itself.

Over the last several months, an interesting debate has occurred concerning the future of American grand strategy. What defined such ideas during the roughly half century struggle between the USSR and the United States was the doctrine popularly known as containment. America and its allies attempted to constrain Moscow and its communist partners across economic, political and military domains. At times, tensions flared with many fearing such a stance could lead to World War III, and even a nuclear holocaust.

Today, a new bipolar competition is taking shape. While not a global chess match for influence or a new “Cold War” as some theorize,  the United States and the People’s Republic of China faceoff in a competitive contest in the Asia-Pacific and larger Indo-Pacific region. In November 2011 in a now famous long form op-ed in Foreign Policy, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out American’s strategy of a “pivot” to Asia. Chinese pundits and media have panned the pivot or now respun “rebalance” as a blatant attempt to contain China’s rise.  One Chinese professor even remarked, “The pivot is a very stupid choice… the United States has achieved nothing and only annoyed China. China can’t be contained.”

I agree — unless China makes the choice to contain itself.

Clearly Beijing has interconnected itself into the global economy and international system with enormous success. U.S. – China bilateral trade stood at a jaw-dropping US$536 billion last year. China is now the second largest economy in the world. With an expanding middle class, it is also expected to become the world’s largest energy importer. Indeed, the nature of today’s interlinked global financial system serves as the ultimate insurance policy against any U.S.-led containment strategy.

Yet, despite China’s growing economic integration, it seems leaders in Beijing have been doing a pretty good job of creating a regional environment that is wary of its intentions.  China has made a number of controversial strategic moves that have alarmed the international community. The result has been an ever increasing number of nations looking to each other as well as the United States out of fear that China’s rise could have dangerous consequences for their own national interests.

A short survey of the last several years — while by no means exhaustive — gives rise to a disturbing narrative: Beijing is attempting to slowly but surely gain regional hegemony in Asia. While it is unclear if such moves are part of a coordinated master plan or a clumsy series of unintended blunders by various actors in China’s government, the result is the same — a region on edge that fears Beijing’s intentions.

A good starting point as any would be Sino-Japanese tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. While Tokyo is not completely innocent — escalating tensions last year by nationalizing three of the disputed islands, Japan has controlled the disputed area since the early 1970s. Beijing has raised the stakes by sending a steady stream of non-naval maritime vessels, surveillance planes, and now even fighter jets close to the disputed area.  Japan has responded by scrambling its own fighter planes in an increasingly dangerous standoff. Recent op-eds in Chinese state media went so far as to question Japan’s control over Okinawa.

Conservative Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, responding to the threat posed by Beijing, is looking to revamp and strengthen Japan’s military — with historic implications. Japan’s recent annual defense paper noted, “China has attempted to change the status quo by force based on its own assertion, which is incompatible with the existing order of international law.”  Creating even more tension, Tokyo has protested a recent Chinese move to assemble a gas drilling rig near a hotly disputed area in the East China Sea. As reports correctly note, the rig is in China’s area of control, however, there is concern it could take gas from Japanese controlled territory.

Extending beyond the maritime arena, tensions in the Indo-Pacific concerning China and its neighbors also involve one of Beijing’s BRIC counterparts, India. Both nations have been at odds over an ongoing border dispute that spans several decades.  Recently tensions have been exasperated by incursions of (some of which have a strange, almost comical nature) small bands of Chinese troops crossing over what is referred to as the line of actual control (LoAC).  While such incidents have not lead to conflict, considering each side is ramping up their military capabilities, one could argue Chinese actions are creating tensions that can only push New Delhi, however weary, closer to Washington. Combined with reports that Chinese undersea naval forces have deployed to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), India may seek stronger relations with America in an effort to hedge its bets.

Then there are the ongoing disputes in the South China Sea. China’s effective seizure last year of Scarborough Shoal, well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), has created a dangerous precedent. In various panels I have attended here in Washington and during recent travels to the region, it is clear that Beijing’s actions last summer have put many on edge.  The Philippines has begun modernizing its armed forces — an obvious response to recent troubles with China. Tensions this summer have also been exasperated by Chinese activity near Filipino-held Second Thomas Shoal.

The above collection of incidents —  a result of historical tensions, economic competition, and budding nationalism, certainly has many starting origins. It would be inaccurate to single out China as the cause of all of Asia’s strategic tensions or to label it Asia’s next boogeyman.  Yet, there is one common denominator in all of these territorial squabbles — China. In almost all of the Asia’s strategic tensions, Beijing somehow enters into the mix.

The danger for Beijing is quite clear. A narrative is quickly developing (in the media and in foreign policy circles globally) that whatever China’s intensions, the People’s Republic in the years to come will use its economic and military muscle to achieve its aims in the region — utilizing an aggressive posture if necessary. While America’s pivot clearly has a military component to it, with China being the obvious target, many could argue quite convincingly that Washington is merely reacting to Chinese military advancements that specifically target U.S. capabilities and actions over the last several years.  The collective consequences of China’s recent moves risk creating an environment where its rise to regional and even global superpower status is effectively blocked — a self-created containment if you will.

Putting aside America’s pivot, nations in the region are also beginning to step up their diplomatic and military efforts to balance against Chinese actions.  Nations across the Asia-Pacific have fueled what could be called a budding arms race. Vietnam, who fought a bloody war with China in 1979 and has a long history of territorial tensions with Beijing, is acquiring new submarines from Russia. Taiwan is attempting to develop its own asymmetric military force. On a recent visit to the Philippines, Prime Minister Abe promised support to Manila’s coast guard. Many have argued a recent large Russian military exercise in the Far East was sent as a possible signal to China.

In the end, Beijing is the one who holds the cards to reverse the trend of such a narrative — a narrative that it largely has itself to blame for creating. Taking an aggressive stance against neighbors over rocks, islands or reefs will only serve to feed into regional tensions. Accidently or not, troops crossing disputed borders only feeds the narrative that Beijing is a regional bully — pressing forward where it can to gain advantage . Beijing should recall that history shows us that the rise of any nation to global stature creates natural tensions. Harvard’s Graham Allison recently noted that “in 11 of 15 cases since 1500 in which a rising power rivaled a ruling power, the outcome was war.”

With the odds stacked against it, Beijing would be wise to do all it can to reverse just a narrative. If it does not, its own self-containment could be the end result — or worse.