China's Premature Power Play Goes Very Wrong

June 3, 2014 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: China

China's Premature Power Play Goes Very Wrong

"What the region requires is a new kind of balance—not of power or of resolve, but of uncertainty."


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.

But the pomp and posturing camaraderie of the recent Putin-Xi summit is in inverse proportion to the real strategic trust between Russia and China. Moscow does not want to be China’s junior partner, and reserves the right to sell gas to Japan and advanced weapons to Vietnam and India, hardly the actions of a bosom friend identifying China’s security with its own. Russian and Chinese strategists will keep eyeing the other power with long-term unease. The rationales for their nuclear arsenals have long included each other: one reason for Russia’s determination to keep tactical atomic weapons and a first strike doctrine is its diminishing conventional strength relative to China’s. Were it to find itself in a real military crisis with America, China would hardly expect Russia to put its own security at stake, and in any case, Moscow’s Pacific Fleet remains underwhelming. And the idea that India—the same India that mistrusts and arms against China while embracing Abe’s Japan—would categorically side with China and Russia against America in any meaningful military sense is so surreal that it doesn’t warrant further analysis.

Much more worth scrutinizing is China’s claim to be at the heart of a new Asian diplomatic architecture that privileges ‘win-win’ Asian management of Asian security problems. In May 2014, Xi Jinping announced this ‘Asian security concept’ at a lavish summit in Shanghai for the Conference of Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA). This is a grouping that had languished, barely noticed for years, in the margins of the crowded calendar of Asian diplomatic meetings. Why its sudden elevation by China?

On the surface, the logic and morality of Xi’s argument can hardly be faulted: of course Asian powers should be the ones to resolve Asian challenges, right? The problem is: which problems and which Asia? The CICA’s claims to be comprehensively and exclusively an Asian institution are tenuous and it is most definitely not of the Asia-Pacific. Its members include Egypt, Iraq and Iran but not Japan, the Philippines or Indonesia, which are mere observers. Singapore, Asia’s consummate conference convener, doesn’t get a look in. But Russia is there and—no surprise—the United States is out.

None of this is a mystery. In essence, the CICA was a low-key Kazakh initiative from the early 1990s, with a modest post–Cold War agenda, but now dusted off and plumped up by a China that is growing frustrated with the way the Asia-Pacific’s preferred diplomatic institutions have matured over the past decades.

Those organizations, like the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN Regional Forum and the ASEAN Defense Minister’s Meeting Plus Eight, may be slow to evolve and dependent on the comfort levels of Southeast Asian countries traditionally cautious about offending China or anyone else. But they are making progress as pillars of a multipolar regional order, in which norms of noncoercion, respect for law and a rules-based approach get a hearing among nations with diverse political systems.

Moreover, their membership accurately matches an Asia-Pacific, or more precisely Indo-Pacific, footprint. This reflects the sustained role of the United States in Asia, India’s growing interests and reach, Japan’s enduring importance, the accomplishments of ASEAN as a core regional institution, Australia’s interconnectedness with Asia, and China’s legitimate and irreversible links with Southeast Asia and the sea lanes of the Indian Ocean, including through vital oil supplies and wider trade and investment.

Part of the real reason for China’s new emphasis on the CICA and its arbitrarily landlocked map of Asia is that, in this post-charm offensive phase, Chinese diplomacy seems comfortable only on a stage it manages. This reading is borne out by the extraordinary outburst of China’s senior representative at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue, an inclusive and structured regional forum run by a UK-based think tank, in Singapore. On June 1, General Wang Guanzhong publicly accused U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of using his address to the same gathering for issuing ‘threats’, ‘intimidation’ and ‘provocation’. He attacked an earlier speech by Japanese Prime Minister Abe in similar terms. Abe had, in fact, barely mentioned China by name, although his carefully worded remarks made clear Japan’s newfound willingness to help other countries build capacity and coalitions to protect their and Japan’s interests in opposing coercion and maintaining freedom of navigation. Apparently, for this transgression, General Wang went so far as to describe Abe’s address as ‘unacceptable’ and ‘unimaginable’—as if a foreign prime minister’s words are for a military man to circumscribe.

Just as China’s strengthened links with Russia will not become an alliance, its bid to sideline maritime Asian institutions will not get far. This is for the simple reason that a growing China cannot easily escape the Indo-Pacific character of much of its destiny. The energy and resources it needs for its continued development will in large part cross the sea. The more that China extols its ‘confidence-building’ conference with countries to its continental west, the more glaring will be its refusal to operationalize risk-reduction measures with its seagoing neighbor. Sooner or later, Beijing will have to compromise its interests with those of a wide range of Indo-Pacific partners, from the United States to Southeast Asia, India to Australia to Japan, and the diversity of their stakes in the maritime commons. As a trading power, China has legitimate interests across this vast blue canvas, but within its institutions, Chinese influence will necessarily be diluted. This is not some conspiracy to contain China’s rightful role. It is simply a description of the context of China’s rise.

For now, though, China is still struggling to come to terms with the unhelpful geostrategic realities of maritime Asia. This is one reason it is trying hard to rattle the United States, its allies and would-be partners with new shows of leadership and confidence. Here, Beijing may well be right in sensing an opportunity. Syria and Ukraine had deepened doubts abroad and within the United States about America’s staying power as leader and close-in balancer, its willingness to take risks when the threat to its interests is not patently immediate or direct. President Obama’s West Point speech—whatever its honorable themes of counterterrorism, closure and restraint—did not reassure Washington’s Asian allies and friends. Secretary Hagel’s subsequent remarks in Singapore—with its warnings against Chinese coercion—probably made up for that in some way, which helps explain General Wang’s discomfort.

Some press accounts have suggested that the public bluntness of Wang and Hagel marks an ugly new phase, an intensification of competition and forceful rhetoric between China and the United States. This is not so new: a related propaganda war between China and Japan has been underway for months or more. Conferences and speeches alone do not alter the strategic dynamic, but may crystallize what is changing in the real world. The Indo-Pacific (or maritime Asia) is still far from a new Cold War, let alone a devastating naval-cyber-nuclear version of 1914. But the next few months will be unusually important to the future security of this region that is becoming the global center of economic and strategic gravity.

Under question is the region’s capacity to craft an order that is at once stable and free from domination by a single power. If China’s latest behavior and rhetoric can partly be explained by an excess of the wrong sort of confidence—premature, misjudged or a conduit for nationalism—then the United States, its allies and partners will need to be firm, yet also careful and nimble, in how they push back. Somehow, the message needs to reach China’s security decision makers that their continued risk-taking could have consequences they cannot control.

What the region requires is a new kind of balance—not of power or of resolve, but of uncertainty. Of late, too much of the uncertainty has been in the minds of America’s Asian allies and partners. Turning this situation around may be a first step towards China’s acceptance that it will have to live up to its ‘win-win’ rhetoric when dealing with all its neighbors. In other words, what is needed now is greater uncertainty among China’s strategic decision makers about how the United States, Japan and the region’s middle powers will respond to—or anticipate—the next coercive move.

Beijing may pretend to shrug off one legal action, but will have trouble sustaining its indifference if Vietnam or additional South China Sea claimants also seek international arbitration with the overt blessing of the United States, the European Union and other champions of a rules-based international system. Stability in the South China Sea, a global shipping artery, is every trading nation’s business. So Washington would be well advised to follow the kind of practical action plan recently advanced by security policy expert Ely Ratner, involving a coordinated assertion of rules-based management of maritime disputes, globally through the G7, as well as regionally through the East Asia Summit. Simultaneously, the United States and its allies, including Japan, are in their rights to signal that they will expand security capacity-building, training and intelligence-sharing when Southeast Asian states invite them to do so in response to new anxieties about China’s actions.

Shifting the balance of uncertainty in Asia need not have a principally military dimension. Even with constrained resources, the U.S. Navy can sustain a visible presence in the South China Sea and, by invitation, in the territorial seas and exclusive economic zones of partners and allies. New anxieties about regional stability will encourage more countries to join U.S.-led maritime exercises and surveillance cooperation throughout the Indo-Pacific. This need not amount to provocation, if combined with persistent invitations for China to begin serious risk-reduction dialogue so that close encounters like the December 2013 USS Cowpens incident become less likely to occur or escalate. The truth is, China’s maritime assertiveness in recent years has not risen relentlessly. Notably, the tempo of sea and air incidents against Japan—though still troubling—has eased this year; the disciplined pushback by Japan’s experienced maritime forces may well be a factor. Beneath the bluster, at least some of China’s security actors must know they cannot be the masters of infinite risk. This will be a long drama and the script is not theirs alone to write.

Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute and a non-resident senior fellow in foreign policy with the Brookings Institution. You can follow him on Twitter: @Rory_Medcalf.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/APEC 2013/CC by 2.0