By Robert D. Kaplan and Rodger Baker
What are the Chinese up to? Why raise tensions as much as they have in the Pacific Basin? Beijing's recent declaration of new fishing rules in disputed territorial waters has raised the ire of maritime neighbors and the consternation of the United States. It follows on the heels of the recently declared air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, above disputed islands in the East China Sea, which led American B-52s from Guam to overfly the region — as a challenge to China's declaration and as a statement in defense of Japan, which also claims these islands. In the face of American and Japanese military resolve, can China even defend its claim to the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) island chain? Or can China truly dominate the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea?
China's bark certainly seems bigger than its bite, as the saying goes. China is acting in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea from, in some respects, a weak position. Indeed, China's various ground-based and airborne early warning systems — needed to defend the new ADIZ — are either too far away or still in production, while Japan is further ahead with this type of platform, which has been part of its military for decades. China's naval logistics and long supply lines make formal occupation of islets in the Spratlys difficult to obtain and harder to maintain.
To be sure, with the exception of Japan, China's navy and coast guard can overpower any single local competitor. But China cannot overpower any combination of states that includes the United States. And any overt act that changes the status quo — occupation of islands, military confrontation or, for that matter, the establishment of an air defense identification zone — threatens to do just that: draw in the United States. Meanwhile, the Philippines has been vocal in calling for expanded U.S. naval and air assets in and around its archipelago. And Washington will soon shift one of its most modern aircraft carriers to a forward deployment in Japan.
But what if the Chinese regime merely wants to raise tensions with the United States for the sake of a domestic audience, while avoiding actual conflict with it? That is a risky proposition, but it does explain China's behavior. In fact, it explains China's actions across the whole Asia-Pacific region — actions that garner explosive headlines but are in other ways somewhat benign. The Chinese have coast guard ships circling islands, and those ships occasionally push a Philippine or Vietnamese fishing boat around. It is mainly bluster and puff. In almost all cases the Chinese are not fundamentally altering strategic realities, for they cannot. Preponderant Chinese naval and air ability is not yet there. Unsurprisingly — again, in most cases — the United States is largely ignoring these Chinese actions. In other words, there is no demonstrable American naval buildup in the region.
What we are seeing, therefore, is mainly a managed set of confrontations that serve domestically in China to keep the nationalistic spirit at a high volume in order to reinforce the sense of rising Chinese power — something particularly necessary for the leadership during a time of slowing economic growth. Huffing and puffing at sea also helps China shape bilateral discussions with neighboring maritime claimants from a position of greater strength, or at least lay the groundwork for later assertions of ownership by highlighting the inability of local powers to fully deny China's claims — something China's neighbors obviously worry about. Furthermore, by having its navy and coast guard antagonize a country such as the Philippines — not to mention Japan — China shows its domestic audience that the regime is standing up to the United States, a treaty ally of both of these countries.
But observe how China has actually behaved in both the East China Sea and in the South China Sea over the past few years: When its unilateral actions generate too much attention from the United States on account of its alliance structure — so that the costs of Chinese actions outweigh the benefits — the Chinese simply shift attention elsewhere. For example, the Chinese stoked tensions for weeks on end in the disputed Spratly Islands near the Philippines in the South China Sea. But just as the United States began to take notice, threatening an uptick in U.S. naval involvement, China shifted military — and hence public — attention to the East China Sea and Japan. The Chinese did not stop patrols near the Philippines; they just reduced them somewhat and took demonstrable action elsewhere, around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. It is likely, therefore, that this East China Sea dispute will fade a bit in the news and that the Chinese will raise the level of maritime provocation near Vietnam or Taiwan. Because China cannot fully secure the waters in the Pacific's marginal seas with the U.S. Navy and Air Force watching its every move, Chinese air and naval actions seem to have much to do with image management at home.
Because Chinese military capabilities are growing at a faster rate than most other Asian countries, it would seem to make sense for Beijing to be a good neighbor, provoke no crises, and simply bide its time as over the years the correlation of military power in the Pacific shifts slowly in its favor. Such a strategy would draw many countries in the region closer to Beijing's orbit, thereby lessening their psychological dependence on the United States. In fact, were China's leaders under no public pressure at home, it would make sense for them to play this long game with the utmost discipline: no military provocations abroad, even as China builds inexorably its military might. And for years, under former leader Deng Xiaoping's advice, China did just that — keeping its military capabilities relatively quiet, its territorial challenges relatively mute.
But China's leaders evidently feel that they are under pressure at home. China's economic miracle is not what it was several years ago. Fundamental reform and rebalancing can no longer be avoided. And even if such reform works and China's new leaders turn out to be heroes on the scale of the late Deng Xiaoping, more social and political turmoil probably still cannot be avoided. China's new president and party leader, Xi Jinping, needs levers he can pull to ease public pressure on his new leadership team. Nationalism can easily be dialed up in such a circumstance.
In sum, China, by provoking crisis after crisis in the East and South China seas, is apparently acting against its middle-term strategic interests abroad in exchange for short-term benefits at home. After all, provocations such as bullying the Philippines and raising tensions with Japan will only intensify these countries' reliance on U.S. power, which China wants to see dissipate in the region. There is an irony here: Dictatorships do not, at least by definition, govern by the consent of the governed. But in this case, as in many others, it turns out that even dictators desperately require public approval and often act counterproductively to obtain it.
Of course, Chinese leaders and their people believe fervently in their territorial claims in the Pacific and would say that they are merely asserting their rights in the face of false claims by other states in the region, backed up by the hegemonic United States. But again, the likelihood for satisfying these claims would increase were China to act in a low-key fashion, even as it continues its military buildup and, later on, has the element of surprise.
For decades Americans have believed that Chinese power would be more benign if only China liberalized, with public opinion playing a larger role in shaping policy. But the opposite appears to be true. The more Chinese leadership feels it has to listen to public opinion, the more truculent and nationalistic the regime's behavior is likely to become. So while this particular crisis in the East China Sea will likely wane, many similar ones will likely crop up over the horizon. In the long run, as China's military capabilities catch up to its rhetoric, the willingness of neighboring states to dismiss China's claims will decrease.