China Undeterred and Unapologetic
China’s audacious land reclamation activities in the South China Sea are only the latest sign that its approach to settling maritime disputes with its neighbors has taken a sharp and dangerous turn. Although China began acting more assertively after perceiving its ascension to great power status in the wake of the global financial crisis, Beijing still felt compelled to justify its muscular movements in Asia as necessary reactions to the provocations of “troublemakers” in the region. Sure, China was standing strong, but arguably in response to the adventurism of others. It was more retaliatory than overtly belligerent.
As Beijing made a habit of tempering and justifying its behavior, leading Western analysts developed terms like “reactive assertiveness” and described Chinese revisionism as “cautious and considered.” The seizure of Scarborough Reef in the South China Sea in April 2012 was explained as a compulsory response to the Philippines’ use of a naval vessel (rather than a coast guard ship) to interdict illegal Chinese fishermen.
Similarly, China’s persistent incursions into Japanese-administered waters around the Senkaku Islands have been, according to Beijing, an obligatory answer to Tokyo’s purchase and “nationalization” of the islands in September 2012.
Over the last eight months, however, China’s efforts to alter Asia’s geography have become unequivocally self-initiated. On the eve of Vice President Biden’s trip to Beijing last November, China announced the establishment of a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that extended over areas controlled by Japan and South Korea. This triggered widespread speculation about what had compelled Beijing to make this provocative move. Was it comments by the Japanese defense minister threatening to shoot down Chinese drones that wandered into Japanese airspace? It had to be something, right?
The following month saw the promulgation of new fishing regulations with which China blessed itself with additional legal authorities in the South China Sea, further advancing its claims over hotly contested territories. Nowhere to be found, however, was the kind of defensive pretext that would have accompanied a similar step in years prior.
Fast-forward to May 2014 and China sent a $1 billion oil rig into disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam. Desperate for an explanation, American commentators speculated that perhaps this was a retort to President Obama’s April trip to the region. But again, the Chinese offered no excuses, arguing instead that they were conducting normal economic activities in Chinese waters.
And now comes land reclamation and the enlargement of small outcrops into islands that will likely be used for military activities. Not content to simply change facts on the ground, China is now changing the ground.
In public, Chinese officials continue to deny this shift toward proactive assertiveness. Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong told a capacity crowd at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1 that, “China has never taken the first step to provoke troubles.” This rhetoric is likely to endure, but unfortunately for China’s propaganda machine, the track record of the last several months speaks for itself.
So what’s changed? At least three elements explain this more assertive turn. First, the newly appointed President Xi Jinping is willing—and he has said as much—to be more forceful in achieving China’s territorial aims and to accept higher degrees of regional instability in the process. Second, China’s governing institutions have become more coherent through the consolidation of maritime agencies and stronger coordination among its national security policymaking bodies. And finally, Chinese capability is growing in terms of both military and maritime capacity, as well as economic instruments like the deep water oil rig now floating off the coast of Vietnam.
It’s actually not that complicated. China is changing the status quo in Asia because it wants to and thinks it can. Xi Jinping is a confident and powerful leader with a high-priority to-do list, and he’s increasingly enabled with greater capabilities and the institutions to deploy them. Mix in an economic slowdown and a healthy dose of nationalism and you have a recipe for revisionism.
The result, however, is that American aspirations for China’s rise have gone terribly off-script. For decades, U.S. policy toward China has comprised a dual-track “hedging” strategy that includes engaging Beijing in an effort to induce China to support the existing international order, accompanied by a balancing component in which the United States and its allies deter Beijing from choosing an aggressive path. But now this strategy is coming apart at both ends: China neither accepts the territorial realities of Asia, nor is it deterred from coercive acts of revisionism.
The real problem is that China’s bullying will endure as long as no one gets in the way. Why wouldn’t it? Beijing is pushing on an open door, incurring few tangible costs for its assertiveness and appearing to believe (perhaps rightly so) that it can ride out whatever regional criticism arises in response. Based on its track record of the last several years, it’s understandable that Beijing remains confident that most countries in the region will, at the end of the day, be unwilling to imperil their economic relationship with China.
Alarm bells ought be ringing more loudly in Washington. Ultimately, it will be up to the United States to staunch China’s mounting revisionism. But this will first require a sober recognition that the old theories of how to shape China’s rise aren’t working. This is a difficult conversation to have in Washington because acknowledging Chinese behavior for what it is—undeterred and unapologetic assertiveness—will necessitate a more serious American response than we have seen to date.
This doesn’t mean forgoing the cooperative elements of the “hedge” and committing to a highly competitive relationship with China. We’re not there yet. And besides, there’s a big difference between determining that China is presently undeterred versus determining that it is patently undeterrable. Before definitively drawing the latter conclusion, the immediate task for U.S. policymakers is to test the elasticity of Chinese decision-making.
This calls for greater attention to cost-imposition strategies that attempt to shape the relative value of continued revisionism for China. Washington will have to explore the full potential range of economic, military, diplomatic and political points of leverage over Beijing (and there are many) to increase the costs of Chinese assertiveness, including areas that directly impinge on the interests of China’s leaders. The United States will also have to develop more tailored options for responding directly to maritime coercion in ways that repel specific acts of revisionism, rather than simply exacting lateral forms of punishment after the fact.
China’s slow but steady revisions to the territorial status quo in Asia are not a legacy the Obama administration wants to leave behind. Being more proactive in stemming this behavior represents the principal challenge for Washington’s China policy today.
Ely Ratner is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Photo credit: Asitimes