Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Cowpens incident is what it says about China’s long-term expectations. Beijing unilaterally declares a section of international waters in the East China Sea to be off-limits to foreigners, then physically enforces this ban – evidently successfully – against a warship of the U.S. Navy. This parallels a ban on foreign fishing activity that China tries to enforce every year in the northern part of the South China Sea. The unilateral exclusion of foreign military vessels is a direct challenge to what could be called an American “core interest”: unhindered transit by U.S. vessels through the world’s international waterways, or what the Navy calls “freedom of navigation.”
The December 21, 2013 edition of the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, obliquely asserted a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine based on deference to Chinese “feelings” rather than international law: “the South China Sea will never be the same as the Caribbean, thus the U.S. navy will have to consider the national interests and the feelings of China while cruising in the South China Sea.” Other Chinese media outlets have made similar demands – that Americans must respect Chinese feelings now that China is a strong country – in reaction to reported plans of U.S.-South Korea naval drills in the Yellow Sea after the lethal North Korean provocations of 2010. The Chinese government has similarly complained about Japanese surveillance of Chinese fleets sailing in seas far from China but close to Japan.
After the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, the other maritime region on China’s periphery is the South China Sea. The Chinese claim to at least partial ownership over the South China Sea is even stronger. To date Beijing refuses to clarify or disavow the infamous “9-dashed line” that on Chinese maps marks a boundary encompassing most of the South China, or the sea within the “first island chain” south of Taiwan. Beijing demonstrated that this claim is not merely symbolic when in 2012 it dispatched government ships to blockade Philippine fishermen from entering Scarborough Shoal, which is over 600 miles from the nearest Chinese coast but is within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Thus, if we disregard the claim of Chinese officials that China doesn’t want a sphere of influence, what we are left with is a growing pile of indications that China does indeed intend to establish a maritime sphere of influence, with exclusive rights to resources. This is not to say that China’s desire for a sphere of influence is limited to the oceans. Beijing also has or is trying to cultivate disproportionate influence in the capitals of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Central Asian states, Burma and North Korea. But it is in the maritime Asia-Pacific region that the clash of U.S. and Chinese designs is most serious. A Chinese sphere of influence here would require the eviction of American strategic leadership, including U.S. military bases and alliances in Japan and South Korea, U.S. “regional policeman” duties, and most of the security cooperation between America and friends in the region that now occurs. Washington is not ready to give up this role, seeing a strong presence in the western Pacific rim and the ability to shape regional affairs as crucial to American security.
A basic problem, then, is that Beijing wants a sphere of influence, while Washington is not willing to accede it. Unfortunately, therefore, U.S.-China relations are not poised for a breakthrough that could be achieved with a few concessions. American abandonment of Taiwan will not solve this basic dispute over influence in the region. Nor will it go away if Americans stop complaining about human rights abuses in China or the Chinese government’s involvement in organizing cyber attacks against U.S. corporate and government computer systems. The booming bilateral trade relationship and other ties create reasons to avoid war, but these have not solved the security problems that can independently drag the two countries into conflict.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center.