Is China-U.S. competition for primacy in Asia this century’s greatest threat to peace? Some analysts think so. But in leaping from Sino-American competition to potential world war, they miss the obvious: Chinese leaders probe, seize opportunities, and challenge the international system with creeping assertions of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas. Yet they have no intention of sparking war, and they know that American, Japanese and other leaders are equally averse to risking so much over something as arcane as maritime boundaries and rights.
We need to reframe the problem. As important as it is, the potential for war is not the sole reason to pay attention to China’s actions. We must also attend to China’s pressing challenge to rules, rule making, and rule enforcement short of war. In other words, the China challenge is not only the avoidance of major power war (as crucial as that is, it is not as likely as some suggest), but also how to counter Beijing’s growing assertiveness in maritime Asia short of war.
China does pose a challenge. Its rapid power gains coupled with its maritime saber rattling are riddling the region with a profound sense of insecurity. A redistribution of power is occurring, to be sure. Change is unavoidable and a rising China must be accommodated. There is no guarantee that a more Sino-centric regional order will protect the rights of China’s neighbors. In fact, there is ample reason to be skeptical about China’s future intentions.
One does not have to argue that China has a coherent grand strategy of regional dominance to see that there is a problem and the system is under stress. Towering ambitions to rejuvenate China, make it a maritime power, and achieve the “China Dream” notwithstanding, Xi Jinping may not harbor long-term imperial ambitions. Still, why should neighbors hitch their security to a state with a long history of thinking of itself as the Middle Kingdom, and one in which anti-corruption and censorship campaigns leave individuals totally exposed to the caprice of an unelected Communist Party cadre?
Between fears of Finlandization and the specter of World War III, there is a vast middle ground. Much of it is increasingly a series of grey-zone contests. The postwar order is under daily assault, but because the attacks are so small (they don’t call it “salami slicing” for nothing) there appears no recourse in the face of bullying. China is counting on regional paralysis. But by not wanting to upset trade for security, neighboring states are risking the basic rules of the road, such as norms that insist on the peaceful resolution of dispute and demand that military forces conform with basic operational safety.