Wednesday, May 28, 2014

China Is Stealing a Strategic March on the U.S.

Bit by bit Beijing is creating new facts,and with each incident, it throws down the gauntlet

Is China being stupid? Or is it being really clever? That in a nutshell is the foreign policy debate over Beijing’s seemingly concerted effort to provoke its neighbours. The case that China is being stupid is easy to make. In recent weeks Beijing has picked simultaneous fights with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. It moved an oil rig near Chinese-controlled islands claimed by Hanoi, triggering anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in which four people died. This week a Chinese fishing boat, part of a large flotilla around the rig, was accused of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.

Prodding at Manila’s maritime claims – whether by building artificial islands or seeking to control fishing grounds – has also turned the Philippines against China. After kicking the Americans out of the Subic Bay naval base in 1992, Manila has now asked them to come back. During President Barack Obama’s recent swing through Asia, it signed an agreement to allow US ships and aircraft to use its bases.

China has also antagonised Japan. By flooding disputed areas in the East China Sea with aircraft and boats, it is challenging Japan’s administrative control of the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu by Beijing. That has given Shinzo Abe, the rightwing prime minister, all the excuse he needs to press for a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution. Mr Abe wants Japan to be able to fight in defence of its allies. Japan’s more assertive stance, far from troubling its neighbours, has been welcomed by many. Tokyo is supplying the Philippines with coastguard boats and has promised to do the same for Vietnam. In short, China appears to have scored an own goal by driving its neighbours into each other’s arms. All trace of China’s smile diplomacy has vanished.

Brad Glosserman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies finds it “inexplicable” that Beijing would stir up such trouble. Why would it do that, he asks in The National Interest magazine, when it faces so many potentially explosive economic and social problems at home? Mr Glosserman thinks Deng Xiaoping, who said China should “hide its brightness, nourish obscurity”, would be spinning in his grave. But Deng’s exhortation implied that China should bide its time, not that it should bury its ambition for all eternity.

Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, has an alternative view. He argues that China’s manoeuvres should come as no surprise. After all, Xi Jinping, its increasingly assured president, has called for a “new model of great power relations”. That means it wants to be treated not as a US subordinate but as an equal, at least in the western Pacific. “These things are inherently zero-sum, so for China to have more power and influence, America must have less,” he writes in The Interpreter, a blog run by Australia’s Lowy Institute. To bring that about means undermining US authority by picking small, but winnable, fights.

This is not an immovable object and an unstoppable force. The game is asymmetric – as indeed are China’s military capabilities. (It cannot match US aircraft carriers but it may be able to sink them with missiles.) To preserve the status quo, the US needs to prevent every one of China’s moves, something it has been unable to do. China needs merely to pick a few small battles that it knows the US has no wish to fight. An air defence identification zone here. An oil rig there. Of course, Mr Obama could draw a red line. But, as he found out in Syria, red lines can be tricky.

Bit by bit, then, Beijing is creating new facts on the ground, or rather in the sea and in the air. With each new incident, it is throwing down the gauntlet. Is it worth fighting for a Vietnamese fishing boat? Thought not. How about a submerged Philippine reef? An uninhabited island? In the short term, such tactics may well prod neighbours to stick together or cling ever closer to US skirts. But if China is changing regional perceptions, and realities, that may not matter. There is talk, for example, of a more united stance by members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. For now it is just that. Talk. Asean is divided between countries that have disputes with China – the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam among them – and ones that do not, including Thailand and Cambodia. Concerted action looks a long way off.

Prof White wrote a book with the self-explanatory title The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power . The US, he argues, has three possible responses to Beijing’s challenge. It can withdraw from Asia (highly unlikely and unnecessary, even from Beijing’s perspective); it can seek to maintain its primacy; or it can compromise. The choice is between “containment” and “appeasement”, two words loaded with negative connotations.

China is seeking to prove to its neighbours that containment cannot work and that the US cannot be relied upon to defend them. If it can do so, they and Washington will have to acknowledge that the status quo is untenable. It is a dangerous strategy. It is also a clever one. Financial Times UK.

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