The Buzz

America and China's Dangerous Dance in Asia

2010 is a year to remember in U.S.-China relations. Since the second decade of the 21st century, the very strategic foundation of the relationship has undergone incremental erosion – five or so years later the cumulative result is serious.  The vocabulary employed to describe approaches to managing bilateral ties has changed, captured by the decreasing use of an “engagement” vocabulary, a passing transit through the concept of light and heavy “hedging,” on to “deterrence,” and now one hears voices using the vocabulary of coercive diplomacy in both societies.

Some in the China studies field have argued against the proposition that China’s regional policy has become more assertive. I am not among them.  There has been a qualitative change in Chinese regional policy and broader strategic alignment, notwithstanding Beijing’s official protestations to the contrary and the fact that China’s current neuralgias are largely those of the past. Unfortunately, the already-hackneyed characterizations of PRC behavior as “salami slicing” or “nibbling” have an element of truth – Beijing is attempting to peel back the maritime status quo ante in the East and South China seas, one thin layer at a time, without making a move dramatic enough to justify a major response by others at any given moment.  All this is not to say Japan and others have not taken ill-advised actions that have provided openings for, and provoked, Beijing, a most recent example being Tokyo’s renaming islands in the East China Sea.

All this gives rise to several questions:

1. Why (or to what extent) has Beijing changed a successful policy that for more than three decades facilitated a dramatic increase in Chinese comprehensive national power without engendering a proportionate rise in the anxieties of others?

2.To what extent is China responding to the behavior of others and to what extent is it seizing on small provocations to make advances?

3. Why is Beijing jeopardizing the primacy of its internal, economic reform goals by alienating substantial chunks of its periphery and running the risk of an ever-stronger international coalition pushing back?  

4. Why is Beijing allowing itself to be driven into a corner of alignment with Russia, an economic underperformer that violates the PRC’s own 60 year-old-principle of respecting national sovereignty?

5. What are the lessons that we learned from the Cold War about strategy, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy that have applicability in current circumstances in a far different globalized world?

6. Has U.S. policy in any way given added push to negative developments?

7. What are the appropriate (and effective) policy responses available to Washington?  What are clearly disastrous paths that Washington and others should eschew?

I cannot address all these questions, serious research is needed on each, and I am not pushing for specific actions, beyond endorsing the spirit behind Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel’s July 28, 2014, statement calling for “claimant states to define and voluntarily freeze problematic activities” – the tit for tat cycle occurring in maritime Asia needs to be broken. Instead, I wish to make three points as we try to work our way through this precarious period:

- First, the problem we confront in Asia is not simply assertive Chinese nationalism.  What we face in Asia is conflicting, assertive nationalisms.

- Second, we should not simply frame the issue as, “How should the United States respond to Beijing?”  Rather, the regional and international systems have reacted, and are reacting, and this has already imposed meaningful costs on the PRC.  An important question for Beijing is how long does it wish to bear these, and possibly other, growing costs?

- Finally, as we contemplate how to respond, Washington should not take actions that are to everyone’s detriment, not least the interests of our friends in the region, nor should we fail to consider the lessons of the Cold War in developing responses.

Asia is a region in which levels of trust across national boundaries are low, and memories are long. It is a region full of pluralistic societies and polities, many of which seek to garner domestic support by appealing to nationalistic aspirations – this is as true for Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as it is for PRC leaders and others in the region.  As a consequence, while it is certainly true that assertive Chinese nationalism is a problem, the larger challenge is the interacting nationalisms driving many polities and societies in Asia to be assertive.  Washington needs to be careful that in opposing the assertive nationalism of China we are not giving free rein to others.