A month after controversy erupted over the announcement that multiple U.S. allies will join China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Obama administration’s response was clearly misguided. Concerned that the AIIB represented a power play by China for influence in the rest of the world at the expense of the U.S., administration officials criticized the bank for not adhering to the “high standards” required of U.S. and Western-led international institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
In contrast, there was a clear alternative for the United States: welcome China’s contribution to economic development in the developing countries of Asia and even join the bank itself. Indeed, U.S. officials, intellectuals, and pundits of all stripes repeatedly complain that China has not lived up to its obligations as a major power to provide the “global public goods” that help prop up the international system. At face value, the AIIB seems like it will exemplify the kind of role in the world the U.S. would like China to play.
This narrative, however, is complicated by the fact that there are serious double standards present when China claims it is providing global public goods. At a recent conference sponsored by a new (and somewhat mysterious) China-funded think tank based in DC, Ambassador Cui Tiankai echoed statements by Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying that the real purpose of China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea is to provide public goods for all countries in the region:
[China’s maintenance and construction work on Nansha islands and reefs] is well within China’s sovereignty. It does not impact or target any other country. The main purpose is to improve the functions of facilities there so as to provide services to ships of China, neighboring countries and other countries that sail across the South China Sea. Such services will include shelter for ships, navigation aid, search and rescue, marine meteorological observation, fishery service and many others. Emphasis will also be put on marine environment protection.
Of course there will be defense facilities. This is only natural and necessary and they are purely for defensive purposes. If these facilities could not even defend themselves, how can they render service to others? If China could not safeguard its own sovereignty, how can it shoulder greater responsibilities for international stability? Therefore, building-up of China’s capabilities in the South China Sea provides public goods to all and serves the interests of maintaining security, stability and freedom of navigation there.
To Western audiences, this rhetoric sounds hollow and hypocritical. Contrary to fervent Chinese statements, China’s position on territorial sovereignty has not been “clear and consistent over many decades”; China’s unstable behavior in its periphery within the past decade has in fact deeply troubled the U.S. and countries in the region. China hasn’t exercised “best restraint in handling disputes with others”; the PLAN and PLAAF, the China Coast Guard, and even civilian fishing vessels routinely play games of brinksmanship and threaten freedom of the seas and skies. And when China complains about the “unjustifiable demands of certain parties” and that others can’t impose a “unilateral status quo,” China seems tone-deaf and engages in fantastical somersaults of rhetoric and logic that would make Orwell blush.
Later in the conference after Ambassador Cui’s remarks, a U.S. expert on maritime security law pointed out that questions regarding the restriction of military activities within a state’s exclusive economic zone (a pet issue of China’s) can be answered empirically, not normatively; there are detailed records of decades-old UNCLOS negotiations that show a majority of signatory states disagreed with China’s position and voted down such restrictions. There cannot be room for an alternate interpretation, which would actually make the law meaningless.
China’s actions to delegitimize accepted international law while claiming it acts for the good of mankind is an example of what the U.S. military calls “Phase Zero Operations,” or actions conducted in peacetime that affect the strategic environment. Unfortunately, U.S. civilian policymakers have not really adopted this mindset for either the conduct of U.S. national strategy or understanding China’s behavior.
U.S. policymakers should work with China to uphold the existing international system using select issues in which U.S. and Chinese interests are aligned, including the AIIB. This does not mean the U.S. and China cooperate for cooperation’s sake—too often the U.S. pushes for concrete items of engagement while China dithers on abstract diplomatic statements, and the U.S. cannot give away the farm on particular mil-mil engagements where China stands to gain much more than the U.S. in learning specific operational art. But the U.S. must also somehow disentangle China’s double-speak and effectively deliver a counter-narrative to countries in the region.
Ultimately, U.S. strategy will succeed or fail based on perceptions influenced by these competing narratives. The ultimate test of U.S. strategy, and whether the U.S. and China can in the end maintain a stable deterrence relationship, is not whether the U.S. could in the abstract match its ways and means to its ends, but whether all sides actually believe the U.S. will follow through on its commitments.
William Yale is a research associate at The Foreign Policy Institute (FPI) of The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).