Is China a status quo or a revisionist power?
This question dominated 20th century geopolitics. Attempts to discern whether competitors intended to adjust the existing international order in their favor, or to overthrow that order and install something new, sat at the heart of statecraft and diplomacy at the openings of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. The question goes to the heart of the willingness of people and statesmen to make the sacrifices necessary to defend national interests. World War I might have been worth fighting against a revolutionary power, rather less so against states that merely desired a reshuffling of the deck.
Unsurprisingly, this question has animated (if often implicitly), U.S. discussion of the problems created by the rise of China. We can agree on certain things. Chinese pilots are not going rogue; there is a logic behind these intercepts, and it’s worthwhile to expose Chinese provocations. All of this tells us less about China’s long-range aims than we might think, however.
Sometimes it’s hard to see whether a state is pro-status quo or revisionist. Russia appears only recently to have determined, after 15 years of struggle, that it simply cannot live within the international order created and maintained by the United States. For a very long time Imperial Japan sought to understand its own foreign policy as part of the broader colonial project that the European powers had created, before rejecting even that as insufficient. On the converse, in the Cold War the United States determined, eventually, that Soviet Russia was basically an ornery status quo power, different in character from either Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.
Thus far, there is precious little to indicate that China genuinely seeks to overturn the existing international order of East Asia, rather than carve out a larger (and more unique) place within that order. Competitive status quo powers do things like creating ADIZs, throwing their weight behind squabble over islands, and playing hardball with respect to contested offshore resources. Similarly, launching increasingly aggressive interceptions of recon aircraft in the vicinity of China is something that we could expect of a mildly competitive status quo power, especially one enjoying growth in economic and military power.
The best, most robust, longest enduring international orders carve out a space for legitimate competition, while also delegitimating certain actions (the annexation of a neighbor’s province, for example). But the experience of the last couple of years also reaffirms that there’s nothing necessarily pleasant about how a status quo power jockeys for position under an existing rule set. Moreover, simply granting that China does not seek revolution hardly means that the United States, Vietnam, the Philippines, or Japan need to view Chinese moves with complacency.