China’s regional diplomacy has a schizophrenic quality. On the one hand, Chinese leaders have resumed their charm offensive, with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang visiting five Southeast Asian countries in October and attending a high-level work conference on “periphery diplomacy,” highlighting Beijing’s intention to use “good-neighborliness and friendship” to create a peaceful and stable regional environment.
During their travels, Xi called for a “maritime silk road” to connect China with Southeast Asia, and Li put forward a seven-point proposal to deepen cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On the other hand, Beijing’s aggressive steps to pursue its maritime territorial claims have generated alarm throughout Asia. Since declaring an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea in November, Beijing has deepened its confrontation with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, sent a three-ship Navy patrol to the James Shoal (50 miles off the Malaysian coast), and tried to prevent the Philippines from resupplying forces on a derelict warship on the Second Thomas Shoal.
These actions show China’s determination to expand its effective control over disputed maritime territories in the East and South China seas and highlight Xi’s vow never to compromise on basic interests.
To Western analysts, the dual Chinese goals of maintaining stability (weiwen) and protecting maritime rights and interests (weiquan) are contradictory. How can China hope to maintain regional stability when it is aggressively strengthening its claims to territory claimed by its neighbors? From a Chinese perspective, however, a contradiction is a tension to be managed, not an imperative to choose between conflicting goals.
China uses a variety of tactics to manage this tension, including relying primarily on paramilitary rather than military forces and using “salami tactics” to expand its effective control of disputed territories on a step-by-step basis while staying below the threshold of military confrontation. China also has become more willing to use its growing military advantage to intimidate rival claimants.
Beijing carefully differentiates between claimants and non-claimants to divide potential opposition and prevent collective responses. (This suggests Beijing will wait before establishing a South China Sea air zone to avoid confronting Southeast Asian and Northeast Asian countries simultaneously.)
China perceives its actions as defensive responses to actions by others that challenge its “indisputable” sovereignty. Framing issues this way produces domestic incentives for tough responses, and allows China to claim that its actions are defensive.
Since 2012, Beijing has sought to deter challenges by using them as opportunities to expand China’s control. For example, Philippine Navy efforts to enforce fishing regulations in the Scarborough Shoal created a crisis as China and the Philippines deployed additional ships to the area. Even after a US-brokered mutual withdrawal, China wound up with control when it redeployed paramilitary vessels to block Philippine access.
Beijing subsequently applied this “Scarborough model” to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands after the Japanese government purchased three of the islands from a private Japanese owner in September 2012. China has sent paramilitary and naval ships into waters near the islands with the goals of challenging Japanese administrative control (the basis for application of the US-Japan security treaty to the islands), and forcing Tokyo to acknowledge the dispute. With US support, Japan has refused to make concessions. China has responded by intensifying its anti-Japanese campaign, citing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo as evidence of a revival of Japanese militarism.
Chinese analysts blame the US “rebalance to Asia” announced in November 2011 for encouraging challenges to Chinese claims, but China’s more assertive approach to maritime disputes actually predates the rebalance.
Beijing’s approach rests on the belief that the regional balance of power is moving in its favor and that other countries will eventually have to compromise. However, other claimants also face nationalist publics and will not simply abandon their claims. Despite China’s importance, they have other options, including enhancing security ties with the US. .
Managing the tensions between competing Chinese goals requires agile diplomacy and effective control of military and paramilitary forces. However, China’s nationalistic policy environment and mixed crisis management record does not inspire confidence in Beijing’s juggling ability.
If China continues aggressive efforts to expand control over disputed territories, it will further damage relations with its neighbors and risk destabilizing the regional security environment.■
Phillip C. Saunders isdirector of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University in Washington. These views reflect only those of the author and are adapted from his contribution to the book “International Relations of Asia,” David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, editors.