We are in the midst of an intensifying competition in Asia. The main driver of this competition is an ever-more powerful China determined to set the rules of engagement around its vast periphery; the South China Sea is the locus of rivalry. In seeking to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, China may well believe it is simply reclaiming its historic position as the dominant regional power. It may also think that its actions are defensive, designed to protect its security, access to resources, and vital sea lines of communication. But it realizes that the post-World War II order largely built by the United States still obstructs this objective. Thus, China hopes to displace the United States while gradually dominating its neighbors in a manner unlikely to trigger any decisive or timely response. Unfortunately, the United States has not enacted a policy that will forestall this eventuality. In Washington, too often the urgent crowds out the important. If we wait for the important changes presently underway in Southeast Asia to develop on their current trajectory, the United States and its allies and partners will soon not only lose substantial leverage over the rules and norms of behavior in this region, but also may well face larger security risks in the future.
While China wishes to assert greater control over its periphery, it is not an enemy of the United States. It seeks not to invite war, but rather to set the conditions of and exert influence over a contested peace. Its first objectives are rooted in economic and political stability: the preservation of economic growth and of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both of those pillars of CCP rule are increasingly under stress, the former as the rate of economic growth declines and the latter as a rising middle class and restive rural peasants seek to alter the social compact with Beijing. In President Xi Jinping’s tenure, Chinese power and confidence have risen to the point that China’s desire for a larger de facto sphere of influence is undermining the preexisting regional order. Propelled by the forces of nationalism and security, China has accelerated an effort that effectively displaces, blocks, and denies U.S. power. China seeks to neutralize America’s still considerable conventional military capability through anti-access/area denial capabilities, while it preempts attempts to coalesce Southeast Asia against Chinese power.
So while China is not an enemy, it is very clearly a fierce competitor — and one that is out-maneuvering the United States. Tapping into global trends, China may be able to make common cause with Russia and others to foster the natural forces of multi-polarity, that in turn promise to give China greater latitude over how to deal with its neighbors. Leveraging its growing position as the number one economic partner with virtually all countries in Southeast Asia, China portrays America’s military power as a potential liability and source of confrontation. Relying on a full complement of policy tools, China is able to promote initiatives — often no more than slogans thrown out at rapid speed to find out what, if anything, sticks — to advance its ascending power at the expense of others. There is a battle of narratives aimed at the Asia-Pacific region. In the past year or two, China has managed to burnish its image as a great power not just interested in mercantilism but in regional development. Meanwhile, China has managed to portray the United States as a nation seeking exclusive arrangements, from alliances, to an exclusive 12-nation trade pact (the Trans-Pacific Partnership), to Washington’s initial opposition to a China-led Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.
Chinese strategy is not so much to win without fighting (à la Sun Tzu), but to put itself into the more favorable position to control its destiny and shape its environment via information, legal, and psychological campaigns (the so-called “three warfares”) combined with an indirect approach when it comes to military defenses. China’s military modernization efforts are sufficiently public and robust as to alter the perceptions of its smaller neighbors, especially when they harbor doubts about the future strength and political will of the United States to come to their defense or maintain a regional balance of power. The development of the People’s Liberation Army is also sufficiently rapid and advanced to severely complicate America’s future ability to project power forward into East Asia to protect U.S. and allied interests. But it is not so advanced as to spoil for a fair fight. Indeed, China appears to have been largely deterred by a revitalized U.S.-Japan alliance that includes a more proactive Japanese leadership determined to defends its Southwest Island Chain and a more integrated alliance capability as articulated in new defense guidelines. Meanwhile, the alliance’s strong stance in the East China Sea has deflected some of China’s assertiveness toward the South China Sea, where there is no clear Article V commitment and a multitude of actors and disputed claims to keep the region out of balance.
An indirect approach puts a premium on what we like to call “smart power.” For the Chinese this involves building a diverse arsenal of soft and hard power policy tools, and intermingling them at varying levels of intensity to achieve a favorable balance, both at the moment and in the future. Thus, even benign moves, such as a sudden embrace of confidence-building measures and infrastructure development in the form of “one belt, one road,” can both deflect momentary pushback and, if brought to fruition, deny a competitor the ability to implement future moves. This constant calibration and recalibration among a variety of policy instruments is captured by the phrase “two steps forward, one back.” China is on a constant vigil over how to advance its regional power, brazenly accelerating when opportunities arise and shifting messages and course as necessary to adapt to rising costs and obstacles. This is not to say that the Chinese perfectly execute classical Chinese strategy. I have attended many conferences where the same Chinese official or expert simultaneously declares that no one can stop China’s actions and that China is being bullied by one of its smaller neighbors. Victimhood alternates with brazen claims amounting to spheres of influence, appropriate to 19th century realpolitik, in which big powers are meant to dictate to small powers. The mixed messaging is not always received as intended, although often China’s goal is not the intellectual purity of an argument. It is sometimes more convenient to deploy a multitude of arguments, however contradictory.
Chinese strategy is also attentive to the time factor in political developments. Broadly speaking, China seeks to engender certainty of its future power, with the corollary that crossing China now would be an imprudent course of action. In the short term, it is sometimes simply a matter of playing out the clock on various political milestones such as elections or rotating regional chairs within institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Other times, China’s intent is to delay collective action by shifting the blame for potential instability onto the perceived weakest link within the context of regional politics. That is, if the Philippines or Vietnam is pushing back too hard on China’s assertiveness, then China seeks to convince other ASEAN members that a single country is upsetting the entire regional order.
China also plays the history card, or, in the case of the South China Sea, the historical rights card. Offering up an artificial island for regional cooperation — an island that under international law is not clearly China’s and which would also not engender even a territorial claim if it were originally a submerged land feature — is a way for China to take one more wild stab at buying acceptance of its vague claims of historical rights.
Despite the foregoing characterization of Chinese strategy, we should not assume that the current leadership in Beijing has a detailed blueprint for action. If that were true, then hoary phrases such as the “great rejuvenation” and the “Chinese dream” would be accompanied by far more detailed objectives. Indeed, there have been important research efforts to demonstrate the challenges Xi faces in governing a modern, diverse, and ultimately fragile China. Bearing in mind China’s sources of insecurity and its vulnerabilities will be critical in fashioning an effective posture to dissuade China from a course that relies more on unilateral coercion in favor of a course more rooted in multilateral cooperation. As Secretary of State John Kerry told his counterpart in Beijing last week, China would fare better trying to build regional cooperation than artificial islands.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and the former Director of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.