Beware: A Time of Troubles Ahead for Asia

Mistrust. Escalation. Assertiveness. Unpredictability. Welcome to the new normal in the Asia-Pacific. 

On May 25, amid the Russia-China ‘Joint Sea-2014’ military exercise, it was reported that Chinese fighter jets flew within 100 feet of two Japanese reconnaissance planes located in the two countries’ overlapping air defense identification zones (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. This was one of a string of provocative Chinese actions in disputed territories since President Obama concluded a visit to Asian allies last month. If China is testing American resolve to pursue its Asia-Pacific rebalancing, it received a forthright response in the shape of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Shangri-La Dialogue. Strengthening similar comments made in a visit to Japan prior to President Obama, Hagel called out China for undertaking “destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s keynote address to the dialogue was similarly critical, albeit less pugnacious, and pledged “to support seamlessly the capacity of ASEAN countries in safeguarding the seas.” In response, Chinese General Wang Guanzhong, diverting from his prepared speech, berated Hagel and Abe for making “unwarranted” and “provocative” accusations that violated the spirit of dialogue. General Wang summed up the Chinese position saying that Hagel’s speech was “full of hegemony, threat, intimidation.”

It is easy to dismiss Wang’s blustery delivery as shrill rhetoric for nationalist audiences back home, but it is symptomatic of an increasingly stark clash of perceptions. Beijing maintains that its actions in disputed territories and waters are legitimate, consistent with upholding core strategic interests and fit the definition of rising peacefully. What the United States and countries in the region see is China aggressively asserting claims, concretizing disputes and presenting disputants with fait accompli that they either have to accept or risk economic and other retaliations. While China argues that rising Japanese nationalism and “normalization” is the greatest threat to regional stability, Japan says China has refused all offers to talk and build confidence, preferring instead to demonize Prime Minister Abe. What Washington conceives as the careful balancing of interests in the Asia-Pacific, Beijing sees as a virulent new form of containment.

Post-Olympics and financial crash, Beijing sensed a shift in power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific and adjusted its outlook accordingly. The “Near Sea Doctrine” formulated in 2009, which sets out the rationale for greater control over the East and South China Seas, is emblematic. When Obama announced the “pivot” in 2011, Beijing was quick to perceive it as a balancing of China’s growing power, but rhetoric outweighed action, and Beijing remained confident that eventually, countries in the region would have no choice but to compromise and accommodate China. A half-hearted “pivot” would complicate and slow the process down, but would not thwart it. As late as May 2013, President Xi felt confident enough to propose the idea of a New Model of Great Power Relations to President Obama. The concept is not a far departure from long-standing Chinese foreign policy and proved its mettle in helping keep Sino-Russian relations on track during the previous decade. It tacitly recognizes American hegemony and pushes acceptance of a multipolar world order. The concept encourages stable bilateral relations and asks that the United States respect China’s core interests, refrain from actively harming them and give Beijing a greater voice in global governance.

But if the optimists in China hoped that the United States might even leverage its influence over third parties in the South China Sea to China’s advantage on the principle that this was China’s sphere of influence, Obama has done the opposite, to the extent of openly supporting and encouraging Tokyo and Manila in their disputes. Beijing sees this shift as explicitly emboldening American allies to hinder China’s pursuit of legitimate material and sovereign interests. After several years of growing confidence, and the misconception that the United States would allow China greater freedom to act unencumbered in Asia, a rebalancing policy reinvigorated by President Obama’s recent trip, is a wake-up call to Beijing, which has been testing these new conditions.