The past few years have seen Beijing promote and assert its maritime sovereignty claims by creating facts on the ground, exerting de facto control, and ultimately presenting a fait accompli to the region and the world.
In the East China Sea (ECS), China has steadily increased its maritime presence out to the First Island Chain; constructed gas drilling rigs near the contiguous zone median line, despite the fact that Beijing and Tokyo have not yet finalized a 2008 bilateral agreement to demarcate maritime boundaries; conducted provocative maritime incursions into the disputed territorial waters of the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands; and challenged air incursions into Japanese airspace. In 2013, Beijing unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone in a poorly coordinated move to exert control over the airspace above its claimed waters and put further pressure on Tokyo to formally acknowledge the territorial dispute between China and Japan over the contested Senkaku Islands.
In the South China Sea (SCS), China has built land out of extant geographic features for permanent presence and occupation; militarized some features for maritime security (defense) now and power projection (offense) later; and employed an aggressive legal crusade to characterize the developed geographic features as islands deserving of maritime zones. In both seas, Beijing carries out a sophisticated public relations campaign to bolster its expansive maritime sovereignty claims, and cajoles or coerces acceptance through a pattern of modulating assertive diplomacy combined with economic incentives and military pressures (a strategy known as tailored coercion). Altogether, these independent actions collectively serve to intimidate and isolate the other claimants so as to not alarm the wider region and international community and precipitate a wider crisis or conflict.
To date, the most effective counterbalance or check to Beijing’s campaign of tailored coercion in the ECS and SCS is the U.S. “rebalance to Asia” – an amalgamation of integrated soft and hard deterrent powers (multilateral diplomacy, economic integration, and military presence) to reassure allies and partners; demonstrate resolve and commitment; and enhance force posture, capabilities, and readiness. All things considered, the rebalance imposes the largest strategic cost to Beijing while providing the greatest reassurance to allies and partners.
Understanding China’s viewpoints of the rebalance may provide additional insights on how best to further refine its implementation in the coming years. The United States has only one chance to get it right, and cannot afford to squander the strategic opportunity. The stakes – America’s continued preeminence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and regional (and global) leadership – are too high.
Beijing’s Views of the Rebalance
Beijing believes that the rebalance is meant to maintain U.S. hegemony in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, and largely characterizes the U.S. security policy vis-à-vis China as “containment.” Chinese leaders have concluded that the rebalance is a reaction to China’s arrival as a regional (and global) power; a product of U.S. “strategic anxiety” over China’s challenge to U.S. regional preeminence; and a strategic tool to hinder China’s rise and hold China back from its rightful place on the world stage.
While Washington argues that the rebalance enhances regional security and economic prosperity for all, practically everything about the rebalance runs counter to Beijing’s national security, economic, and foreign policy goals and desired strategic end state of regional preeminence (and possibly global primacy). Therefore, the sustainment of U.S. preeminence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific can only come at China’s expense in the long term.
Beijing views the rebalance as shoring up the current regional security architecture in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, constructed by the United States following World War II. This U.S.-dominated architecture impedes China’s efforts to establish a favorable peripheral environment conducive to its development of comprehensive national power and achievement of its strategic vision of the ocean as “blue economic space and blue territory,” crucial for China’s development, security, and status.
Chinese leaders view the rebalance as primarily driven by security concerns and initiatives. However, they also are very wary of the potential economic impact of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), potentially a key enduring component of the rebalance. Beijing sees the TPP as part of the U.S. containment strategy directed at Beijing, trying to exclude China from the global trade network and hurt its growing economy. For now, China is keeping its options open in order not to be shut out in the future. But, from a long view, Beijing realizes that the rebalance’s economic gains lag behind those in the security sphere, and the TPP combined with the slowdown in the Chinese economy could further tilt the economic balance in favor of the United States.
Recommended Rebalance Adjustments
The U.S. response to China’s call for a “new type of great-power relationship” has been mostly disjointed, uneven, and at times, confusing. There is a distinct disconnect in how Beijing and Washington perceive and understand the model. What the United States views as a way to manage competition (weaken instability) and promote cooperation (strengthen stability), China sees as a framework to acknowledge its new global status and respect of core strategic interests – one of which is territorial integrity and, by extension, maritime sovereignty claims.
The United States will be in a stronger position in its relationship with China, as well as its “rebalance to Asia,” if Washington can make the following adjustments.
Expect and Embrace Friction. When two powers (one ruling and one rising) with competing regional strategies extend into one’s another security space, the geopolitical landscape will be ripe for instability. Hence, do not fear the friction – expect and embrace it. A case in point is Beijing’s insistence on a “new type of great power relationship” with Washington. If China persists, then give Beijing what it wants — but on American terms. For example, reframe the SCS as a strategic problem that directly involves the United States and obliges China to act accordingly. Explicitly conveying to Beijing that the SCS is a U.S. national interest and making the SCS a “bilateral” U.S.-China issue may lead Beijing to question its strategy. Put simply, turn the table and make Beijing decides which is more important to its national interests – the SCS or its strategic relationship with Washington.
Ratify TPP and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The most promising and potentially enduring components of the rebalance are the proposed TPP initiative and ratification of the UNCLOS. If passed, the former is a powerful economic integration tool to complement the other rebalancing instruments of multilateral diplomacy and military presence, while the latter weakens Beijing’s ability to call into question Washington’s sincerity to international norms. China is a member of UNCLOS but often violates its provisions, whereas the United States has not ratified UNCLOS but has been its foremost champion on behalf of freedom of navigation, global commerce, and international rule of law. Therefore, Washington should fast-track the ratification of the TPP and UNCLOS while continuing to build up deterrent military presence and strengthen its principled network of alliances and partnerships.
Strengthen Alliances and Partnerships. China most likely will remain the economic partner of choice for U.S. allies and partners in the region, while the United States will remain the security choice. As the China-U.S. friction grows and intensifies, balancing these relationships will become increasingly difficult for U.S. allies and partners, and they will feel greater pressures to choose sides. Thus, Washington should aggressively pursue stronger regional security ties and be a dependable partner – in terms of policy constancy, resolve, and commitment – to strengthen extant alliances and partnerships as well as look for opportunities to build new ones.
Seize the Initiative, Change the Narrative. To compete with Beijing, Washington needs to reframe the narrative that China dominates with accusations of containment. Washington’s message is typically reactive and defensive, simply seeking to counter Beijing’s strategic messages. Therefore, the United States should be proactive, seize the messaging initiative, and transition to offense like it did during the recent Shangri La Dialogue. Secretary Ashton Carter hit the right note with his warning for China not to build a “Great Wall of self-isolation” and use of the catchall concept of “principled security network” to outline a vision that the United States has long sought to describe. This message needs to be reiterated at every opportunity. In short, acknowledge that both countries have competing visions, highlight the flawed thinking of Beijing’s approach, and champion Washington’s approach as the better choice. Do not euphemize. Synchronize the message throughout the whole-of-government and with allies and partners. There can be no U.S. policy seams or diplomatic space for China to exploit.
At the end of the day, the rebalance offers a fleeting strategic opportunity to nudge China toward being a responsible global stakeholder and net provider of maritime security that contributes positively to the international system. Otherwise, inaction implies acknowledgment and consent to Beijing. Better to deter and dissuade Chinese assertiveness and unilateralism now than wait later when it may have become a fait accompli. The stark strategic choice for Washington is to preserve its authority as a standard bearer of international law and norms – or be diminished as the preeminent power in the Indo-Asia-Pacific and ultimately as a global power.
Captain Tuan N. Pham is a career naval officer with extensive operational experience in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.