America: China Doesn't Care about Your Rules-Based Order

Chinese servicemen gesture from the deck of a naval vessel, during the closing ceremony of the Pakistan Navy’s Multinational Exercise AMAN-17, in the North Arabian Sea, Pakistan, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

The “new Asian security concept” gives Beijing self-conjured legitimacy to rule every extra-regional involvement as “meddling” and therefore, justified for tough counteraction.

So let’s get real, Beijing will continue with this lawfare, justifying what it does as following what others have been doing to itself. And for better effect, couch this all within the boilerplate “Century of Humiliation” narrative: China was victimized in the past, but was too weak then to resist. A stronger China now should right the wrong and is beyond reproach.

Consider the snooping on Talisman Sabre. The jingoistic Global Times criticized Australian media for overhyping Beijing’s “low-key presence” and exercise of freedom of navigation in international waters. More relevant was this point it made: “patrolling in Western waters may be an ideal response to Western interventions in the South China Sea issue.” In short, China’s action is justifiable against what it perceives as foreign meddling in the disputed waters.

With its newfound diplomatic, economic and military clout comes newfound confidence—real or misplaced if you may call it—that Beijing will exploit for its interests. Never mind what others say. Only historical grievances matter. Such pent-up resentment translates into strength to challenge those perceived wrongs.

For one, Beijing sought to paint the existing rules-based order as an archaic Western-centric product. The West’s perceived decline fuels China’s quest to rewrite rules, and propagate an alternative vision for rules-based order. Following Donald Trump’s election and the looming anti-globalization wave, Xi was quick to seize the opportunity to present China as the world’s new stabilizing force, in his keynote address in Davao early this year.

We should have long seen it coming. Since Xi came to power, China has begun laying the foundations of this alternative vision—especially targeting the developing world it believes long oppressed under the yoke of Western domination. The “new Asian security concept” propounded by Xi in May 2014 touched on security concepts familiar to faithful students of international relations. But the most glaring aspect was near the end of his long speech: “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia. The people of Asia have the capability and wisdom to achieve peace and stability in the region through enhanced cooperation.”

In other words: Asians run Asian security affairs, the others should butt out of it. This logically includes the maritime disputes Beijing has long been entangling with its neighbors. The “new Asian security concept” gives Beijing self-conjured legitimacy to rule every extra-regional involvement as “meddling” and therefore, justified for tough counteraction. More insidiously perhaps, this exclusivity concept allows Beijing complete leverage over its weaker rivals shorn of extra-regional support, using its suite of carrots and sticks.

It’s one thing about the PLA Navy exercising freedom of navigation and overflight off foreign coastlines, quite another about defending against foreign encroachment into “Chinese airspace and waters” that are over the twelve-nautical-mile territorial limit surely. But there’s no double standard from Beijing’s standpoint.

Therefore, no point calling out Beijing on its double standard, since it won’t pay heed. While it cherry picks on international rules and norms to pursue interests abroad, including freedom of navigation and overflight for the PLA, it’ll also ensure more resolute response against foreign military activities off its coastline, even in international realms. One needs to brace for more high-octane action from the “heroic” PLA just not too long ago exhorted by Xi to “defeat all invading enemies.” History indicates that the future trajectory doesn’t augur well.

- August 2014: a PLA J-11 fighter jet came within twenty feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace over the South China Sea, performing a barrel-roll at close range and flashed past the nose of the American plane with its undersides exposed to show its weapons.

- May 2016: a pair of Chinese J-11 jets conducted an unsafe intercept of a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane in international airspace over the South China Sea.

- May 2017: a pair of PLA Su-30 jets confronting a U.S. Air Force WC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea. One of them even flew inverted directly above the American aircraft.

- May 2017: a pair of PLA J-10 fighter jets flew about 200 yards in front of a U.S. Navy P-3 Orion and began conducting multiple turns which restricted the latter’s ability to maneuver, in international airspace over the South China Sea.