These are times of mounting drama and tension in the long power play of China’s rise in Asia. Thus, it is more important than ever for American policy makers to peer behind the curtain to see when rising-power loneliness is dressed as leadership and when confidence is a mask for insecurity.
In mid-2014, strategic competition in Asia has become far more than theater. Chinese and Vietnamese vessels jostle and swarm around an oil rig provocatively deployed to contested waters. Chinese ships blockade the Philippines garrison on a contested shoal, while Beijing rejects Manila’s bid for international arbitration. Further north, Chinese and Japanese warplanes narrowly avoid collision while Russian and Chinese warships train ostentatiously nearby. Anti-Chinese riots turn deadly in Vietnam. Sooner or later an incident will turn deadly at sea.
Beijing and Moscow proclaim a new alignment, a united front of energy, arms sales and authoritarian posturing. In Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping challenges the U.S.-led strategic order by suddenly invigorating a little-known regional summit that locks out most American allies. In Singapore, Japanese Prime Minister Abe implicitly offers Japan as a security partner for nations troubled by Chinese power; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warns against Chinese “coercion and intimidation,” and a Chinese General publicly accuses both of crossing the line of acceptable diplomacy. Taken together, this suggests a bleak forecast for the Asian security environment—hardening and increasingly overt strategic competition between China and the U.S. alliance system, leading either to disastrous conflict or gradual U.S. backdown to allow a China-dominated order in a region central to global prosperity.
But the truth is far less simple, and deeply contingent on what happens next—on the choices ahead for leaders in Washington and elsewhere. The Asian strategic order may now be in play; its U.S.-led character is under question, but this is a complex, multilayered game. If China is seeking to rattle America and others—especially Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam—it may be miscalculating. In the long run, the premature displays of confidence China has lately shown are likely to harm its interests more than advance them.
Take the Chinese-Vietnamese face-off over the oil platform. The deployment of the moveable rig may well have been a decision to set a precedent in the South China Sea, to change facts in the water even while Chinese diplomats string out talks on a maritime code of conduct with the pathologically patient Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Perhaps the target was Vietnam precisely because, like Ukraine, it is not a U.S. ally—so the move has the double advantage of showing up the limits of America’s efforts to build new partnerships within the unsteady rebalance to Asia.
So far, China has indeed put great pressure on Vietnam. Hanoi does not want war, yet China will not let it talk, ignoring repeated requests for a diplomatic solution. Following the deaths of Chinese workers in rioting, Beijing has also tried to play up the vulnerabilities brought to the smaller country by economic interdependence—though Vietnam benefits much more from investment by other Asian countries than it does from China.
Yet all this may backfire on Beijing. Other claimant states in maritime territorial disputes with China now have no illusions about how an even stronger China would behave. This is just as likely to encourage them to intensify security links with the United States and Japan—and to invest more in their own defenses—as it is to make them accept China’s point of view over their own. Each in its way, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines are stepping up their cooperation with the U.S. Navy.
A defiant Vietnam will redouble its own efforts at developing an asymmetric deterrent against China (including submarines from China’s supposed best friend, Russia). Hanoi is now also likely to follow the Philippines in lodging some kind of international legal challenge against China , which would further isolate Beijing’s idiosyncratic version of sea law in the court of world opinion. Who knows—perhaps Vietnam may even be the first ASEAN country to call China’s bluff about the continually-delayed code of conduct negotiations, and instead encourage ASEAN to look for strategies less prone to sabotage by Chinese proxies like Cambodia. That is, unless the Philippines pulls the plug first.
China’s grand pronouncements about a Moscow-Beijing axis also warrant scrutiny. Some of the alarmist analysis of this in Western media is downright absurd, and unhelpfully amplifies Chinese and Russian propaganda. This narrative is that the authoritarian giants are forming a massive strategic, economic and diplomatic counterweight to U.S.-led alliances at each end of the Eurasian landmass. Some accounts even suggest that India will join them in a mighty new ‘RIC’ triangle against America and its allies.
Of course, as in any marriage of convenience, China and Russia have mutual benefit to be gained, at least for now. A huge gas deal, many years in the making, has suddenly been finalized. There is talk of elaborate new projects in scientific collaboration, such as a floating nuclear reactor. More immediately, the Chinese and Russian navies have staged large-scale war games in the East China Sea, seemingly a signal to the United States and Japan. Russian arms sales to China are picking up, after a fallow period in which Russian weapons makers had to put up with the awkward business of China making its own versions of their wares through reverse-engineering initial purchases.