After increasingly threatening its neighbors and the U.S., China has recently dialed down its aggression and is trying to woo these countries with promises of economic and security benefits. Some argue that China desires deeper integration into the existing American-led structure in Asia. But Beijing’s charm offensive is merely a temporary, tactical recalibration in service of its goal to remake that order. Indeed, China changed tack only after its provocations backfired by expanding its rivals’ cooperation to oppose its increasingly hostile rise. The U.S. and its Asian partners must intensify this trend because China apparently intends to continue its military buildup and expansion.
China seeks regional dominance, but it is too weak to immediately eject the U.S. from Asia. It is thus slowly chipping away at the American-led order by altering its neighbors’ perceptions of Chinese power and American defense commitments. Beijing wants others to believe that it is too strong to contest, is growing ever more powerful, punishes disobedient countries, and rewards compliance, while Washington is a declining power that cannot and will not meet its security guarantees.
To accomplish this end, Beijing is using carrots and sticks with careful calculation: wooing its neighbors with valuable trade and security packages and intimidating them with threats and displays of force. Indeed, through low-level confrontations with its rivals that do not individually justify war, China showcases the growing gap between its military power and that of its targets. Thus Beijing is demonstrating that those countries will avoid defending each other against Chinese pressure and largely paralyzing the U.S., which fears inciting a nuclear-power and significant trade partner. But Beijing seeks to avoid more serious incursions that risk inviting American retaliation and a balanced coalition. China must therefore constantly calibrate its foreign conduct to employ the optimal levels of attraction and pressure permitted by this approach.
Following this plan, China has regularly flexed its military muscles over the past few years. Consider some examples. In mid-2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in violation of a U.S.-brokered deal requiring those countries to mutually withdraw from the area. In January 2013, Chinese military vessels in contested waters locked their weapons-targeting radar on Japanese military units. The following November, China increased its air defense identification zone to encompass areas claimed by other countries. Throughout 2014, China has constructed civilian and military assets on disputed islands to bolster its claims thereto (and it is building an airstrip-capable island in surrounding waters). Beginning in May 2014, China stationed an oil-drilling rig and over eighty ships in Vietnamese waters and rammed that country’s vessels, sinking one. Beijing has even harassed Washington’s military units as they conducted surveillance from international skies and waters.
China misapplied its formula by being too aggressive and underestimating its competitors’ resolve. Its misuse of the stick hastened an arms buying spree in Asia, caused Japan to shed self-imposed limits on its military power, induced the U.S. to deploy more military assets to Asia, and deepened its competitors’ economic and military cooperation with each other.
Finding itself increasingly isolated, China is now using carrots to entice its neighbors and the U.S. For instance, in just the past two months, Beijing has resumed military ties with Vietnam and offered to resolve their maritime disputes through dialogue. It has also launched a bank (excluding Washington) to provide developing Asian countries with infrastructure loans, and offered a friendship treaty to Southeast Asian countries promising them $20 billion in loans. China has also included the Philippines in its emerging trade route that will connect Asia to the Middle East and Europe, as well as signed free trade deals with Australia and South Korea. Beijing even held the first meeting between its and Japan’s leaders where it discussed creating a maritime dispute hotline with Tokyo. And finally the country secured environmental, trade, immigration, and security agreements with the U.S.
Unfortunately, Beijing’s charm offensive does not represent its acceptance of international norms and American leadership in Asia. Instead, as I have written, China will strategically and temporarily de-escalate when useful, such as to hinder containment. By slowing its transgressions, and offering its competitors a bundle of economic and security pledges, China is attempting to rebrand itself as a peaceful partner to undermine the balancing bloc forming against it. From Beijing’s perspective, if it appears focused on strengthening its slowing economy and open to diplomatically resolving its disputes, its rivals may conclude that it will entirely eschew costly conflicts, making them less inclined to procure arms and to develop defense links with each other.
And even if China’s self-marketing proves unsuccessful, its recent friendliness is still designed to hone its drive for regional hegemony. Indeed, drawing Beijing’s rivals deeper into a web of economic dependence increases its leverage over them. Strengthening its economy through free trade allows China to enlarge its defense budget, and improving its neighbors’ infrastructure (particularly their ports and pipelines) may give China new military footholds and will better secure its oil imports.
None of this is to say that easing tension with China and building upon shared interests with it should cease. But while doing so, Washington and its partners must continue to scrutinize Beijing’s intentions and to prepare for a potential clash with a stronger China. Indeed, the holes in Beijing’s conciliation signal that it plans to continue its military buildup, expansion, and unilateral rule creation. For instance, China has not agreed to reduce its substantial and growing military budget or to limit its cyber-attacks and development of offensive weapons. Despite its friendship treaty with Southeast Asian countries, Beijing demands that its disputes with these weaker countries be resolved bilaterally instead of collectively or through arbitration, and it has refused to slow its land reclamation on disputed islands or to modify its expansive territorial claims. The U.S.-China security agreement, which is meant to forestall unplanned military clashes, does not require advance notification of military exercises, is silent on aircraft encounters, overlooks China’s civilian and coast guard vessels (which are often used over naval vessels to press its territorial claims), and does not resolve their conflicting views on the legality of surveillance inside other countries’ exclusive economic zones.
Regrettably, Beijing’s recent behavioral improvements are likely transitory as the structural friction caused by an ascendant China and an ostensibly declining U.S. still exists. As long as China’s economy continues to grow at a reasonable clip and it believes that it is not surrounded by countries able and willing to (individually or collectively) check its hostilities, more confrontations should be expected. Peace in Asia thus requires continued vigilance from Washington and its partners, even while Beijing plays nice.
Paul J. Leaf worked on defense issues for a think tank. He is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and an attorney at an international law firm.