IT’S clear by now that China’s challenge to the United States on the China Sea isn’t just about shoals, rocks and reefs—some of which disappear at high tide. Ultimately, the game there’s about who is to be the dominant power in the Asia Pacific.
What we’re witnessing is yet another epic contest between an “established” power and a “rising” power—a rivalry of the kind that has occurred again and again in history.
Ironically, the Chinese challenge to American hegemony is an unintended consequence of China’s rise to wealth and power—to an eminence the US market has done so much to stoke.
The China-US rivalry is particularly regrettable because of the historical friendship of the two countries.
During the Pacific War (1941 – 45), China and the US—one a land and the other a sea power—made perfect allies against Japan.
During the China-USSR rift in the 1970s, the Nixon visit to Beijing may have prevented a Russian lunge across the Sino-Soviet border.
But great powers famously have no permanent friends. In fact, they customarily regard each other as potential military rivals; and China and the US have found themselves espousing opposite interests in the Asia Pacific.
No permanent friends
The US has regarded itself as a Pacific power since the 1890s—when it acquired a string of coaling stations from Honolulu to Pago-Pago and Guam; and a deep-water anchorage on Manila Bay for its naval deployments.
During these last 50 years, the pax Americana has given the East Asian states the breathing spell to put their houses in order—just as it is the US market that has spurred their economies to expand at the world’s fastest rate.
History of humiliations
Beijing itself is focused on the danger from the sea—on memories of China’s “150 years of humiliation at the hands of the great powers.” This persistent cultural memory the US can underestimate only at its peril.
China’s news agency, Xinhua, recalls that, from the first Opium War, in 1840, until Mao’s civil-war victory in 1949, China suffered “more than 470 offenses and invasions that came from the sea.”
Currently, Beijing sees its primary need as that of protecting its coastal heartland and its seaborne trade. To gear up for this necessity, it is drawing down its army (the world’s biggest), while building up its air, missile and naval forces.
In 1941, Japan’s fear of being choked by a US oil boycott forced the empire into a war Tokyo knew it was liable to lose. By 2030, China will be importing three-fourths of its oil.
Beijing’s current efforts center on defending a coastline of 18,000 kilometers and 3.6 million square kilometers of ocean—two-thirds of which are disputed.
To protect its industrial coast, Beijing is drawing multiple defense lines that incorporate the China Sea islets it has occupied. Already, Beijing has set up airstrips, radar stations and ground-to-air missile batteries on four of them.
For its longer-term ambitions, Beijing is building a “blue-water navy” made up of carrier battle groups robust enough to project Chinese power on the world ocean.
China’s first homemade carrier is being outfitted in a Shanghai yard; the goal is to have four large carriers by 2020 (the Americans have 11).
Meanwhile, the PLA navy’s busy on goodwill missions. In recent months, a Chinese ice-breaker helped rescue a stranded Antarctic expedition; and a Chinese warship helped a US laboratory ship disarm and destroy Iran’s chemical weapons.
In July 2013, five Chinese warships for the first time transited the China Sea and entered the Pacific between Hokkaido and Russia’s Sakhalin island.
The New York Times describes President Xi Jinping’s diplomacy as his own—and not as “collective formulations,” such as the policy initiatives of previous Politburos had often been.
The plain-spoken Xi did come to power with more authority than any Chinese leader since the indomitable Deng Xiaoping. And he does not equivocate about his vision of a future East Asian order with China restored at its center.
In China’s relations with the US, Xi wants “strategic reassurance; respect for ‘core interests’; and agreed-on spheres of influence.”
Xi speaks just as bluntly of China’s great-power ambitions. He sees Beijing as taking an “active role in global governance,” and “contributing Chinese wisdom to perfecting such a system.” These are certainly not the words of a leader content to stay second best.
(A counterintuitive view among US Sinologists is that China’s tough diplomacy is a product not of new confidence but of insecurity born of several years of financial crisis and social unrest—See Robert Ross, Foreign Affairs 2012.)
Right now, a strong hand in Beijing might work to East Asia’s benefit. Senior generals are reported seeking a greater role in policymaking; and Singapore analysts fear young hotheads might spark a firefight with US surveillance flights and “show-the-flag” sailings off China’s coast.
In the 1930s, young Japanese officers in Manchuria set off the local fighting with Chinese troops that spread throughout the Asia Pacific.
Filling the vacuum
Xi’s China is extending its diplomacy well beyond the Pacific. To counter President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” Xi aims to fill the vacuum the US is leaving as it disengages from the Middle East. Already, China is the largest trading partner of nine Arab countries; and, in late 2015, Beijing pledged $60 billion in economic aid to Africa.
Beijing is also moving closer to Moscow. The two are building a “Greater Eurasia” grouping of the “Shanghai-6” states. For peninsular Southeast Asia, Beijing plans a road-rail network that would draw the Indochina states toward Kunming, in Yunnan Province, as the region’s de facto capital.
China has even begun to offer itself as an economic model for the new countries. In place of the free-enterprise “Washington Consensus” that failed post-Stalin Russia, Beijing advocates “a fusion of the market and strong government.” China’s economy passed Japan’s in middle 2010; it should overtake that of the US by 2030.
In company with the BRICS powers, China has set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the Western-oriented World Bank-IMF combine.
Into China’s orbit?
President Xi’s vision of a future East Asian order with China restored at its center suggests Beijing’s long-term goal is to ease out the US and incorporate the region into China’s economic and security orbit.
I think it’s reasonable to assume China will become stronger proportionate to the US during this next decade or so. The Americans themselves expect China to reach superpower status by 2025. Are the Asean states then fated eventually to be drawn into China’s orbit?
Until Beijing started bearing down on the South China Sea, most of the region’s states had avoided committing themselves to either side in the rivalry.
“Hedging” is a common resort of small powers seeking to manage the risks in dealing with any great power.
But in recent months, Australia and Indonesia have joined Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia in offering hospitality to US aircraft and warships operating in the China Sea.
Last month, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila also agreed to carry out trilateral patrols of the adjoining Sulu Sea.
No single voice
Yet Asean remains unable to speak with one voice on the issue of its maritime heartland. Cambodia and Laos look to Beijing for support against what they see as Vietnam’s own hegemonic ambitions in Indochina.
Above all else, regional diplomacy must seek to prevent East Asia’s division into contrasting power blocs.
The two great powers need time to renegotiate the boundaries of their global roles and responsibilities
For Beijing, closing the income gap between its coastal and interior provinces and reducing social inequality can continue to be the central task.
For the US, recognition of China as a near-equal must mean acknowledging its legitimate interests in East Asia. The Sinologist Orville Schell has declared his belief the US should acknowledge China’s entitlement to “some kind of sphere of influence” in the South China Sea; but obviously US policymakers will find it more difficult to do so.