The recent incident involving an armed Chinese Su-27 fighter conducting a dangerous intercept of a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft has provoked much debate, especially here in The Diplomat. Zachary Keck argues that Chinese pilots are not rogue, and that the actions are consistent with Chinese foreign policy objectives, while, in turn, despite the intercept, Robert Farley argues that China is just an assertive status quo power. Jin Kai states that the P8 intercept signals “China’s bottom line” and is a matter of restating its core interests, yet without being related to the pivot or the “new type of great power relations.” Moreover, here, here, and here a raging debate goes on concerning who’s to blame and whether U.S. surveillance or China’s intercept represents the unlawful act of this drama. So how do we bring these threads together?
China is not a revisionist power, but the intercept indeed indicates revisionist orientation; the intercept is a matter of China’s core interests, and the “new type of great power relations” needs to be included in the analysis; and notwithstanding the quarrels about international law, the intercept was an act of deviance going against established norms of interaction.
The dichotomous understanding of countries as either status quo powers or revisionist powers is flawed. Status quo and revisionism are analytically useful in terms of foreign policy orientations that are pursued at certain times, at certain locations, and in certain issue areas and functional areas of order. Therefore: China is not a revisionist power, but the P8 intercept indicates revisionist orientation. This particular revisionist orientation concerns the regional security order. Whether in the form of Asian security for Asians by Asians as expressed by Xi Jinping or in the form of disapproval of the U.S. broker and leadership role in the South China Sea disputes, the political performances of the Chinese leadership explicitly pronounce a preference for revising the regional security order. Yes, preferences are attitudinal, not behavioral. But overt preferences are revealed in actual choice situations. The intercept was one such situation.
In contrast to overt preferences, there are covert preferences. They instead “take the form of half-articulated or unarticulated grievances or aspirations…because of the bias of the dominant political agenda or the prevailing culture.”
It might be argued that China has long harbored grievances related to the U.S. presence in its backyard, and what is new are China’s growing capabilities to turn these covert preferences into overt ones. Conversely, it might be argued that these acts of “Chinese assertiveness” are nothing new and that China’s strategic logic has not changed. Both arguments miss important points. First, to use capabilities as an explanatory factor is just that – a factor. It is not a source of international order. Second, while acts such as the intercept are indeed not new, these actions should not be separated from China’s main project for regional order – the “new type of great power relations.”
While the intercept in itself might not have anything to do with the new type of great power relations, as such occurrences would have happened with or without this new initiative, the new type of great power relations, however, very much does have something to do with acts such as the recent intercept. It gives them new meaning.
The new type of great power relations captures all the fundamental areas of China’s foreign policy – the core interests, Taiwan, the five principles of peaceful coexistence, harmonious world, and great power equality – into a unified project for the 21st century. It is a project fit for the end of the U.S. unipolar era and for the beginning of a world of regions in which Xi Jinping’s assertion of the Asia-Pacific as being big enough for both China and the United States means that the United States should know its place. In essence, a multipolar world of regions is what China’s harmonious world is all about. True, these ideas are not new, but the project is. The intercept is therefore not only a mere act of deviance – it makes sense in relation to a larger narrative of regional change. If the process evolves according to the generic plan of the project this would entail new status hierarchies, new distributions of roles, and new ordering principles in the regional security order. All of which points towards the fact that revisionism has been more about “recognition and standing…than specific alterations to the existing rules and practices.”
But what about the rules of the game? In the raging debate in which Dingding Chen argued for a halt to U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance on the grounds that it is unlawful, his critics at first contend that international law is straightforward, unequivocal, and not open for rival interpretations. Yet at the same time the idea that it is possible for China to “redefine a legal precept” and that countermeasures should be taken seems to indicate muddy waters of interpretation. At one extreme international law is nothing but ruler practices, at the other international law is infallible, transparent, and always just. In between there might be a middle ground worth taking, but I am not going to take a stance on international law in order to further the argument of China’s revisionist orientation. To avoid quarrels over international law, another way of approaching the issue is to look at the intercept strictly in terms of standards of behavior. Revisionist orientation thus connects to a rejection of “the dominant norms of interaction.” In this case, the norms of interaction concern U.S. surveillance and reconnaissance in China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) to which China indeed rejects. The implications of such a stance are inherently normative and cannot be decided in an unbiased and neutral way.
Of course, much falls back on how the United States makes use of its preventive power.
According to the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, who recently published Reassurance and Resolve: U.S.-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century, the United States “should not and would not pull back” and the smaller voices that preach retrenchment in the American debate will not “win the game.” Thus, if the fundamental problem “is that Beijing wants a sphere of influence, while Washington is not willing to accede it,” then the antithesis of China’s new type of great power relations is facing an uncompromising thesis. Often, when history is faced with such a situation struggle ensues until a new synthesis emerges and creates something new out of the clashing projects.
John H.S. Åberg is pursuing his doctoral studies in International Relations at Lingnan University under the Hong Kong PhD Fellowship Scheme. Follow him on Twitter at @JHSaberg