In Search of the Xi Doctrine

May 30, 2016

As President Obama sought to make his final mark in Asia, visiting Vietnam and Japan last week, he confronted the increasingly clear strategic goals of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Though Xi continues to focus on domestic issues, including a weakening economy, and cracks down on foreign non-governmental organizations with a new repressive law, he is also making clear that China intends to shape East Asia’s security environment. Although not formally articulated as such, put together, his statements form what could be called the Xi doctrine. This “doctrine” appears to reserve to China the right to use force to intervene in conflicts or crisis situations outside its borders, in order to preserve or create a balance of power favorable to its interests.  As such, it poses a challenge to U.S. policymakers, who must uphold the regional rules-based order that has provided stability for over a half-century while at the same time ensuring that Beijing and Washington avoid conflict.

Xi has made dozens of foreign policy speeches since taking power in late-2012, most of them touting peaceful coexistence. In recent months, though, both Chinese actions and his statements have gelled into a more operationally coherent policy, one that directly influences China’s security actions abroad. Xi’s vision and aspiration encompass the whole of East Asia. As such these speeches give greater clarity to what he considers China’s core security interests. The Xi doctrine shapes the geopolitical environment surrounding these core interests, primarily preventing the Korean peninsula from tilting toward the United States, ensuring Chinese dominance in the region’s seas, and forestalling any moves by Taiwan toward independence.

In a little-noted speech to Asian foreign ministers in Beijing in late April, Xi announced that China would “absolutely not permit war or chaos on the [Korean] peninsula.” This policy declaration may be China’s equivalent of America’s hoary “strategic ambiguity” towards Sino-Taiwan relations, keeping all interested parties unsure exactly of what China intends to do. It also appears to be in response to the continued deepening and evolution of the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and the modernization of Korea’s military with new capabilities, including stealth fighters and increased anti-ballistic missile focus.

Xi’s Korea declaration raises more questions than it answers. It can be interpreted equally as a signal to the obstreperous Kim Jong-un not to trigger a conflict with South Korea, to Seoul not to put too much pressure on the North, or to the United States to limit its role in case of war.

Nor did Xi make clear just how it would prevent war. Is this the pre-conflict equivalent of the old Soviet Brezhnev doctrine, pledging Chinese intervention to prevent the toppling of a quasi-client state? Or is Beijing signaling that it would act to restrain Pyongyang, by force if necessary, to prevent a wider conflict? Alternately, proponents of a bigger Chinese role in regional diplomacy might interpret Xi’s words as a plan for acting as broker to mediate during a crisis. Specifics aside, Xi has made clear that China will not sit passively by and let other powers determine the future of the Korean peninsula, thus signaling to Washington and its allies that Beijing will play an active role in shaping Northeast Asian security trends.

In the same speech, Xi reiterated that Beijing would ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea while also defending its sovereignty and interests. The Xi doctrine thus raises the specter of even more direct Chinese intervention in the highly contested South China Sea, which Beijing already claims through its controversial “9-dash line” dating back to the 1930s. Giving teeth to Xi’s statement, China is militarizing its possessions in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, including its new manmade islands dredged from the seafloor. Reports that the Chinese may begin dredging the Scarborough Shoal, contested by the Philippines, further underscores Xi’s position while at the same time promising to enflame an already combustible situation.

The Philippines several years ago took China to international court over the Spratlys. In response, Beijing repeatedly announced its intention to ignore any international court decision. With the U.N. tribunal at The Hague soon to rule on China and the Philippines’ competing claims, Xi’s latest statement further hardens Beijing’s position. Here, too, the Xi doctrine is clarifying China’s position on strategically-important maritime possessions, indicating little hope for compromise on territorial disputes. Beijing seems willing to risk a clash with its neighbors, or possibly even America, in order to maintain a redline over its claimed possessions. Similarly, China issued warnings to Taiwan after its recent presidential election that returned the nominally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to power, to abandon the “hallucination” of independence. These moves raise fears that Beijing remains willing to risk regional conflict to keep firm control over what it considers a renegade province.

All nations act in their self-interest, and no one should be surprised that Beijing has altered its policies to take advantage of its years of economic growth and new military strength. Yet few nations are able to assert their national interest in ways that have the potential to reshape their regions. China’s selective adherence to international law is not unique, but its power and influence makes its actions far more disruptive than smaller states when it chooses a unilateral path based on might.

Xi Jinping has pushed China toward a more confrontational posture throughout East Asia. Japan is scrambling its jet interceptors hundreds of times per year in response to Chinese fighters encroaching on Japanese territory, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. New Chinese Coast Guard cutters, larger than any operated by other Asian nations, patrol contested waters, intimidating smaller vessels from other nations. Philippine and Vietnamese fishing boats regularly face pressure from Chinese maritime patrol vessels. Cyberattacks emanating from the mainland relentlessly test the computer defenses of Japan and other countries.

The Xi doctrine presents the nations of Asia and the United States with a version of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns.” While it is clear that Beijing intends to shape the East Asian security environment to its preferences, the exact means it will use, or how far it will test its strength remains uncertain. That alone may be part of China’s plan, to maintain strategic flexibility by sowing uncertainty among those enmeshed in disputes with Beijing. Such uncertainty could possibly lead China’s counterparts to become more cautious and risk averse in the light of Xi’s forceful statements.

Yet with The Hague ruling looming, and continued bad economic news, the belief that China is an unstoppable force may be waning. With countries like the Philippines willing to use international means to challenge China, and Japan increasing its defense budget, Chinese foreign policy may run into stiff headwinds in coming years. Xi’s statements can be interpreted therefore as a way of forestalling greater challenges to China’s regional interests.

The problem is that Xi will have to respond, if for some reason he were directly and materially challenged on any of his pronouncements. A new air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, for example, might result in a response even from a nation that is far weaker than China, such as the Philippines. Or, the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel could unleash nationalist demonstrations in both countries. That could be an incident which could easily spin out of control, further poisoning relations in Asia, and possibly bringing the United States into the conflict, were its allies involved. It would be better for all if the Xi doctrine were never put to the test.

 

Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, is the author of The End of the Asian Century (forthcoming, Yale). Follow him on Twitter @michaelauslin

Image: CC, Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR