Beijing’s recent establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and its harassment of the USS Cowpens in the South China Sea are deeply connected issues at their core. While the struggle over the East and South China Seas is often portrayed as a territorial dispute between China and its neighbors over resource-rich areas, at a higher level it reflects a broader Chinese grand strategy to kick Washington out of the region and grab sole command of the Western Pacific commons. This strategy, however, is bound to fail.
Prior to its century of humiliation that began in the nineteenth century, for thousands of years China was the strongest, most advanced, and most respected country in the world it knew. This history has given rise to a common dream that unites all Chinese leaders from Sun Yatsen to Xi Jinping, the dream being the restoration of the country’s place at the apex of Asia. What China does reflects its leaders’ attempts to achieve this ambition.
One critical foundation for attaining this top position is command of the region’s commons. Learning from the U.S. exemplar, Chinese leaders have realized that an indispensable condition for China’s rise is the ability to control access to the maritime and aerial commons in the East and South China Seas.
It is, however, a Herculean task for China to gain command of these critical areas. The incumbent master is the United States, which overwhelmingly outguns China.
But, with the help of geography and some versions of history, Beijing tries to claim the East and South China Seas as its own backyard. It does so by pursuing claims to land features—some no larger than submerged rocks—in these seas and to the waters and airspace surrounding them. In other words, what is commonly framed as China’s pursuit of territorial claims is, in actuality, a pretext to gain control of the Western Pacific commons.
This strategy is particularly evident in two devices pursued by China. The first is a U-shaped line in the South China Sea. The second is the ADIZ in the East China Sea. What makes these schemes singularly fit for gaining sole control of the sea and airspace in these areas is their unusual excessiveness stretching far beyond the territories China claims.
Not derived from a land feature, the U-shaped line is used to delineate as China’s own waters most of the South China Sea, including the high seas and large swaths of the Vietnamese, Philippine and Malaysian exclusive economic zones. The ADIZ, while covering virtually the entire East China Sea, requires aircraft not even bound for China to subject themselves to Chinese jurisdiction if any of the flight route passes through the ADIZ.
Shrewd as it may seem, China’s strategy of using territorial claims to gain control of the region’s commons is nevertheless bound to fail. Consider first the scenario of China choosing not to act to assert its claims. Judging that its past actions have only succeeded in garnering international criticism and providing its neighbors a raison d’etre to actively strengthen their militaries and coast guards vis-à-vis China, China could choose not to match word with deed and wait for more favorable circumstances. This would help calm anxious neighbors and reduce international criticism. But because the strength of a claim is dependent on the existence and duration of the actions that assert it, non-action effectively erodes China’s claims and translates to a perpetuation of U.S. regional dominance. China’s domestic repercussions are no less consequential. The ruling regime in Beijing would lose its legitimacy in the eyes of a Chinese populace that is supercharged with nationalism.
Consider next the possibility of China advancing its claims by force but without palpable success. Despite the fanfare surrounding its military modernization program, failure would expose China as a mere paper tiger. The aura of a rising great power that has resulted from its spectacular growth would shatter, Beijing’s image as an indispensable nation would diminish, and the domestic legitimacy of its rulers evaporate.
Finally, there is the possibility that China acts assertively and succeeds. This could be achieved through either a military campaign or a creeping process of salami slicing tactics. Given China’s growing military capabilities, it would not be a surprise if it easily won battles against its South China Sea neighbors or simply overwhelmed Japan in the East China Sea. But China would find its victory pyrrhic. A military strike by China could provoke both military and diplomatic reactions by the United States, Japan, and others. In any event, it would redefine China as an aggressor and trigger sanctions by most of its largest trading partners. The Chinese economy would take a giant hit as the United States would impose economic sanctions, supported by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Australia, India, and the EU. Having no other option to protect its territory, Vietnam would forge a military alliance with Japan, which could soon be merged with the existing U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia to form a Western Pacific version of NATO.
All this leaves salami slicing as Beijing’s most promising approach. However, even if the tactics of creeping assertiveness can suppress the casus belli that would justify an explicit anti-China alliance, it cannot prevent an equally creeping process by which its territorial co-claimants and other wary nations weave an informal network of mutual support to deter and constrain Chinese expansion.
This means that no matter what tactic China chooses to pursue, it will not succeed. While China continues to use territorial claims as a pretext to penalize U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific, in actuality this single-minded pursuit promises to derail China’s rise to the top of Asia. The question Beijing needs to ask itself is whether they are willing to jeopardize China’s return to power over a couple of rocks?
Jeffrey W. Hornung and Alexander Vuving are Associate Professors at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu, HI. Dr. Hornung is also an Adjunct Fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are theirs alone.