In one sense, the recent encounter between a Chinese and a U.S. military plane near Hainan Island is nothing special. The U.S. has been sending spy planes to China’s sea coast for electronic interception and surveillance missions for decades, and Washington even publicly claims that such patrols are lawful, appropriate, and necessary. This specific incident has nothing to do with newer initiatives like the “rebalance to Asia” and the construction of a “new type of great power relations.”
However, in another sense, the recent plane encounter is different. Although similar events have occurred fairly frequently, particularly since 2001, the recent airborne confrontation comes against a much more complicated regional background: the U.S. has returned to Asia, the Sino-Japan confrontation is going strong, and China has decisively announced a new air defense identification zone. Given this background, will China strategically adjust its behaviors with regard to the never-ending surveillance patrols by U.S. spy planes? Should China do so?
For China, the recent incident carries a simple but powerful lesson: rules cannot be separated from power. Though China is the world’s second biggest economy, and is still growing rapidly, it does not have the capability (and thus far, the intention) to conduct similar spy plane patrols near the west coast of the United States. Hence, the behaviors and attitudes of the U.S. seem to be teaching the Chinese about the connection between power and the rules: he who has the power makes the rules, for his own benefit. Some Chinese wonder how the U.S. would react if Chinese military planes patrolled near Hawaii or west coast of the United States. How would the “rules” apply then?
To make an analogy, let’s say that for years, a man with a club has come close to your doorstep and tried to peek into your house. But when you come out to complain, you are told that you are not supposed to make “dangerous” approaches and that the man has the legal right to do as he pleases near your doorstep.
As a matter of fact, this seemingly righteous logic (based on the U.S. power to enforce and create rules) has been around for a long time. Such arguments have often been accepted by the international community (even by China at times), since America, as the only superpower, could provide substantial political and economic benefits by ensuring security in and across the region.
However, the regional and global situation has changed, as has the balance of power. It’s unrealistic to force China to continue to accept U.S. rules simply because they worked in the past. No matter how China reacts in the future, its decisions will be based on very simple logic: responding to perceived provocations with substantial and decisive action based on its own capabilities. Talk about China’s recent “aggression” merely reflects the fact that China’s capabilities are growing, not that its strategic logic has changed.
Of course, China does not intend to seek a total standoff. Instead, Beijing wants to clarify China’s bottom line and to restate its core interests. For the foreseeable future, as the global order shifts, China and the U.S. will have to strike a fine balance in their bilateral relationship: confrontation without conflict. Therefore, the more clearly each side states its position, the more cautious both China and the U.S. will be when making crucial decisions.