So why the bad-boy behavior? China’s assertive policies raise fundamental questions about ultimate intentions. For example, does the edginess portend a Chinese-style Monroe Doctrine for East Asia? And shouldn't it matter to Beijing that its approach to maritime sovereignty runs so directly counter to the Law of the Sea Treaty it has ratified?
Perhaps Beijing is more an irredentist than a revisionist power, primarily seeking redemption from previous indignities and humiliation. After all, no nation benefited more from the system of globalization over the past three decades than China.
The United States, still the steward of a rules-based international system, has also exercised great power prerogatives on many occasions, including the Monroe Doctrine and various regime-change predilections. Yet for all this, the United States remains the architect and leading steward of the postwar international system, which continues to enrich China—as well as Japan, South Korea, India and the ASEAN states. What great power, intent on containing a rival, also works to enrich it?
Despite the bravado, deliberately vague dotted lines and other moves seeking payback for a few bad centuries, China has no choice but to come to terms with neighbors hoping the United States will remain a Pacific power for an indefinite time to come. Despite Beijing’s protests, it's the other Asian powers that want America there—not as hegemon, but as balancer. Having lost its quasi-monopolist grip on Burma, China now has only two close friends in all of Asia: shaky Pakistan and pariah North Korea.
If the recent and rather crude nationalist bluster serves as tonic for domestic weakness, Beijing is buying itself real trouble. A better path still lies open: China can reach an understanding with the United States about each country's respective Asian footprint and then join in stewardship of a rules-based maritime system. But Beijing's recent moves instead entrench a stupid and self-marginalizing policy, deepening Sino-American mutual suspicions and making that mutually beneficial destination harder to reach.
James Clad was U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia Pacific Affairs from 2007-09. Robert A. Manning is Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and served on the State Dept. Policy Planning Staff (2004-08).
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Fanghong.