The cycle of U.S.-China relations has again spun downward, reminding us how difficult it is to maintain peace in a region where a new great power is emerging into the domain of another, longer-established great power. Chinese leaders are well aware of the danger of a rising challenger attracting hostility from the established great power or a coalition of states that want to preserve the status quo. Chinese officials, scholars and commentators have spoken for over two decades about their desire to avoid international opposition to a rising China. Yet PRC President Xi Jinping seems much less worried about this problem than his predecessors in Zhongnanhai.
To many outsiders, Xi’s assertive policies in East and Southeast Asia seem ill-advised even from the standpoint of Chinese interests. Regional governments, already wary of the prospect of Chinese domination, are watching China closely to discern what manner of intentions will guide growing Chinese military capabilities and economic power. Furthermore, China remains substantially weaker than the United States on the most important measures of national power. If we remove the problematic “purchasing power parity” filter, China’s gross domestic product in 2016 is about $11 trillion (based on Chinese figures, which outside analysts generally consider to be inflated). America’s is about $18 trillion. The United States is far ahead of China in productivity, innovation and technological sophistication. The U.S. military outclasses China’s, and the United States has a network of allies and bases in the Asia-Pacific. China has one formal ally (North Korea) and one military base, in the East African country of Djibouti. Washington appears committed to maintaining the U.S. strategic position in the region. This would not seem to be a favorable time for China to openly attack the U.S.-sponsored regional order. Yet China’s demands that neighboring states accommodate Beijing’s wishes appear to be strengthening. In the eyes of many Asia-Pacific governments and societies, some of China’s demands that foreigners accommodate Chinese preferences are unreasonable and even alarming.
The world has accepted many Chinese preferences as legitimate and accommodated them. Foreign capitals are not calling for China to give up its nuclear weapons. Countries tolerate massive Chinese economic penetration even when they worry about the harm this causes to their own industries and the political leverage China might gain from its economic influence. The international community does not obstruct China from winning when the Chinese play by the rules. Other governments do not recognize Tibet as an independent country. Societies that champion human rights engage in robust trade with China despite a worsening climate for civil and political liberties under the Xi administration. Contrary to popular belief in China, the U.S. government does not practice a “containment” strangulation policy against the PRC. Rather, America continues to abet Chinese economic development by educating Chinese students and tolerating a trade deficit with China that has reached $367 billion and is still rising. This despite continuous and serious complaints from American businesses inside China about unfair treatment by Chinese authorities. In deference to PRC sensibilities, only a handful of small, poor countries have diplomatic relations with Taiwan even though Taiwan has the world’s twenty-third-largest economy. Important international organizations welcome Chinese membership. Washington freely issues visas to Chinese journalists despite the official harassment of U.S. and other foreign journalists in China. After the United Kingdom rushed to join China’s newly-established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015, an unnamed U.S. official complained about “a trend toward constant accommodation of China.” But Washington itself stopped criticizing the AIIB later that year.
Despite the space the region has cleared for China, Beijing is demanding international acquiescence to several Chinese strategic preferences that most regional governments consider illegitimate. For example, China claims some (unspecified) form of ownership over nearly the entire South China Sea and most of its “islands,” including features that are within the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam and the Philippines. From the standpoint of external observers, China’s claims are excessive and unjustifiable. Using China’s logic, America could claim the entire northeastern quadrant of the Pacific Ocean, India the Indian Ocean, and Mexico the Gulf of Mexico.
Although China and the other claimants each argue that their own claims are valid and that competing claims should be rejected, each should also recognize that compromise is necessary. Moreover, the reasonable solution to this quandary is for the international community to jointly establish a set of rules for sorting out maritime territorial disputes. This thinking resulted in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ratified by 164 countries including China . As the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague reaffirmed, under UNCLOS guidelines China’s broad claim over most of the South China Sea as well as China’s assertion of “historical rights” to ownership of certain island-like features are invalid. Beijing now argues, however, that in this case, UNCLOS should not apply. This is because, according to China’s interpretation of Asian history, China owned these maritime territories long before UNCLOS came along. The PRC’s South China Sea policy presents two disturbing implications. First, Beijing reserves the right to disregard international agreements China has signed if abiding by them would go against a Chinese interest. Second, when involved in a dispute with other countries, Beijing’s inclination is to force them to submit to China’s will while presenting a veneer of willingness to negotiate. In the present case, Beijing insists on one-on-one talks with each rival claimant while pressuring them through economic leverage and military intimidation.