Beijing's maritime push presents the gravest strategic challenge to the US and its allies since the disappearance of the Soviet Union
A passing phase or a dangerous and permanent strategic challenge to Asian stability for years to come?
That, in a nutshell, is the debate about China’s current behaviour in the South China Sea, which appears almost deliberately designed to provoke most of the region’s nations.
But even if no categorical answer can be provided to this question, it is clear that China has crossed a fundamental psychological barrier.
Beijing is no longer engaged in just a reactive or theoretical assertion of its rights to territories and waters; China now sets the strategic agenda with pre-emptive actions which create irreversible facts on the ground.
And China will continue doing so unless the United States and its allies – both in Asia and elsewhere – respond in a more coherent manner.
When the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was privately told in 2010 by senior Chinese officials that they considered Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea as China’s “core interest”, she instantly understood the huge significance of these words; that’s why, notwithstanding China’s fury, Washington promptly leaked details of the episode to the media, in the hope that this would either force Beijing to clarify its demands, or shut up.
The Chinese did neither, but most other governments – including, occasionally, the US itself – chose to substitute realities with wishful thinking by offering various explanations as to why China had suddenly changed its approach to territorial disputes.
Just a “mistake” by some “over-zealous” officials was one interpretation favoured by China analysts.
A determination not to lose out in the race for offshore gas, oil or fishery resources was another popular explanation for Beijing’s behaviour.
And, as the pace of confrontations in the South China Sea and East China Sea intensified, a new explanation became popular: that all the sea incidents were due to some alleged bureaucratic competition between various Chinese law-enforcement agencies that supposedly did not know what they were doing.
It’s now time to discard all these self-serving interpretations and accept the evidence that is staring us in the face: that China’s policy is consistent, and follows a precise strategic objective.
Beijing is not interested in fishing or energy resources; these will in any case belong to China once the South China Sea effectively becomes a Chinese lake.
Instead, the main aim is to impose an exclusive area of Chinese strategic pre-eminence or control over the region, pushing the US Navy as far as possible away from China’s shores while reminding neighbouring states that the United States cannot be relied upon to come to their defence.
Call it a “new type of major-power relationship” as Chinese President Xi Jinping likes to put it, or just an old-fashioned division into spheres of influence as practised for centuries between big countries, the outcome is the same: this is the most audacious and gravest strategic challenge to the US and its allies since the disappearance of the Soviet Union.
Still, there are plenty of ways the US can effectively respond to this challenge without unleashing a war.
How can the US respond?
A new policy should start by not lending too much credence to the argument that, sooner or later, China will understand how counter-productive its current moves are and will opt for the peaceful handling of its claims.
Yes, Beijing’s territorial assertiveness has internationalised the very territorial disputes that China adamantly claims are purely bilateral affairs.
China’s behaviour has also alienated the country’s neighbours and, at least for the moment, it is bringing the US Navy even closer to China’s shorelines. But that’s not how China perceives matters.
As seen from Beijing, almost everything currently works in China’s favour.
Japan may stir up, but it’s a nation doomed to decline.
North and South Korea need China more than China needs them.
The Chinese also don’t believe that Asean will ever go further than just waving its Code of Conduct, a document that has been overtaken by events and that, in any case, should be seen as a policy tool, rather than a policy in itself.
Nobody in Beijing seems to take the Philippines seriously; Chinese officials have privately dismissed the Philippines as an American stooge and supplier of low-cost foreign workers and entertainers.
And, while the Chinese do take Hanoi seriously, they also know that while Vietnam can win some military skirmishes, it can never prevail against China.
This explains China’s sudden deployment of a deep-water oil drilling rig near the Paracel Islands, also claimed by Vietnam, and the ongoing standoff in the South China Sea.
Underlining this complacent Chinese view is the perception that the US is currently led by a weak president who buckles under pressure.
And the more US President Barack Obama tries to shake off this image, the more he is seen as just a boy pretending to be a boxer: endearing, amusing, but hardly persuasive.
Meanwhile, the Europeans are too busy clearing up the rubble from their financial crisis to even notice events in the South China Sea.
Salami Tactics and Cabbage Strategy
Of course, most of this is a dangerously over-simplified generalisation.
And, yes, there are plenty of Chinese analysts who have a more nuanced and cautious view of the world.
But the prevailing mood in the Chinese leadership, among the small number of men who speak no foreign languages and seldom travel overseas, is that, to use an old Marxist term, the “world correlation of forces” now allows China to shape its strategic environment.
For the moment, that seems to be the case.
Early this decade, experts giggled when confronted by China’s “nine-dash line” map; today, the presence of Chinese ships in these contested waters is so massive and so routine that it has become a fact of daily life.
Incrementally, reefs and atolls are falling under Chinese de facto control and, once they do, are enlarged to project China’s military power even farther afield.
It also allows China to claim larger swathes of exclusive economic zones.
Some refer to China’s behaviour as “salami-slicing tactics”, while others, such as Chinese general Zhang Zhaozhong, call it the Cabbage Strategy, a method of surrounding a contested area with so many ships the disputed island is essentially wrapped like layers of cabbage into Chinese control.
Regardless of the imagery, the substance is the same: a set of supposedly small steps that, once undertaken, are irreversible and, over time, result in China gaining its territorial objectives.
The only way the US can counteract this is by gaining what strategy specialists call “escalation dominance”, by making it clear to Beijing that China is not the only country that controls how big or how small these confrontations are, and that China can never be sure of the strength of the US response.
If, for instance, a small Chinese step in the South China Sea prompted a strong and disproportionately large US response, then Chinese military planners would have to think twice about their next step in the escalation process.
When Obama visited the Philippines recently, he had the perfect opportunity to regain such escalation dominance.
Had he announced the immediate stationing of some US Navy ships in the Philippines, that would almost certainly have forced a rethink of strategy in Beijing.
But instead, the US leader merely signed an agreement that envisages potential visits by US ships at future dates, so the Chinese felt free to call Obama’s bluff by plonking their oil rig in contested waters near the Paracels a mere week after Obama departed from the region.
For the moment, therefore, escalation dominance is still with China, precisely where it should not be.
Given Southeast Asia’s currently fraught security situation, it may seem odd to suggest that what the region needs is even more uncertainty.
But, it’s only when Chinese decision-makers realise that they can’t predict how the US may react that Beijing current strategy may be reversed.
Chinese officials love to talk about the supposedly “win-win” character of their diplomacy. It’s high time they transformed this tired cliche into some reality.