China’s rise: the strategic climate is getting colder
3 Mar 2014|
Colder times ahead?

Last week I spoke at a conference on ‘Peace and Security in East Asia’ in Taipei, jointly organised by the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Chengchi University. The main topic discussed was China’s announcement in November last year of the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over parts of the East China Sea. My speech focused on the strategic implications of the ADIZ for regional stability and on possible responses. As I’ve argued here on The Strategist, the ADIZ adds fuel to an already volatile security situation. And the conference reinforced my impression that China’s rise is leading us to a colder strategic climate in East Asia, and possibly Southeast Asia.

There are three particularly worrying, interrelated trends. Firstly, China appears to have abandoned its foreign policy doctrine of a ‘peaceful rise’. Instead, the ADIZ can be regarded as just one element in a larger strategy of trying to assert sovereignty in the East China Sea and vast parts of the South China Sea, as reflected in Beijing’s ‘nine-dashed line’.

Since declaring the ADIZ, China hasn’t stood still. It has imposed new ‘access rules’ for foreign vessels in disputed maritime zones in the South China Sea—a move heavily criticised by the other claimant states, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as the US. Beijing also moved to establish permanent military structures in the Scarborough Shoal, an area also claimed by the Philippines. Finally, there are signs that Beijing plans to set up an ADIZ in the South China Sea, which would seem logical from a Chinese military point of view as a means to extending air cover for the Navy’s growing operational radius in these waters. But it would also deeply rattle most Southeast Asian nations.

Secondly, Sino-Japanese strategic relations have reached a new low. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute has become almost a structural impediment to meaningful dialogue between the two nations, fuelled by growing nationalism on both sides. While the problem of Chinese nationalism has long been recognised by international scholars, a participant at the conference made the interesting observation that Japan’s new National Security Strategy can also be seen as a tool to create a ‘crisis mentality’ amongst the Japanese population about China’s strategic challenge. In the face of competitive nationalism, Sino-Japanese rivalry is becoming increasingly harder to manage.

Thirdly, China’s increasing push to test established international norms when it comes to solving territorial disputes as well as its willingness to challenge the regional order creates a dilemma for the United States. Washington finds it more and more difficult to reconcile the two key pillars of its Asia-Pacific grand strategy: stable US–China relations on the one hand, and reassuring allies and partners about the credibility of American deterrence in the face of China’s ‘creeping expansionism’. American analysts warn that this precarious balance will become increasingly harder to sustain. In short, Washington is required to signal stronger resolve to deal with China’s intimidation of its neighbours.

Indeed, in recent months the US has stepped up the rhetoric in combination with some limited action to send a message to Beijing and the region. Washington has

  • sent two (unarmed) B-52 strategic bombers through the ADIZ immediately after China’s announcement
  • reaffirmed that Article V of the US–Japan Mutual Security Treaty covers the disputed Senkaku/ Diaoyu Islands
  • asked Beijing to refrain from enforcing its ADIZ rules
  • warned China from establishing an ADIZ elsewhere in the region and
  • Washington has challenged the basis of China’s claims in the ‘nine-dashed line’.

This shows that America’s patience with China’s ‘salami slicing’ tactics in the East and South China Seas is growing thin. Undoubtedly, the strategic climate in these regions is getting colder.

Obviously, the critical question is what China’s next geopolitical chess move will be. Will it purposely challenge the Obama administration, for example by announcing an ADIZ over the South China Sea? If that happens, the US administration will be forced to react to avoid appearing weak. Or will Beijing decide to take a strategic pause and consolidate its gains? It would seem to make sense from Beijing’s perspective to avoid further pushback, including from Southeast Asian countries—some of which are already sending informal messages to Beijing that they don’t want to see an ADIZ over the South China Sea.

The good news is the strategic situation in East Asia is still far from hopeless. As Joseph Nye recently argued, historical comparisons with ‘1914’ are seriously flawed. Nor are we seeing a Cold War in Asia. At the same time, there’s a greater need for managing a grey area between conflict and peace. What’s required is a more coordinated regional response to China’s attempts to alter the status quo through coercive means. It shouldn’t be left to the US, Japan, Taiwan or the Philippines to deal with China on a bilateral basis on issues such as the ADIZ. Otherwise, China’s approach of ‘divide and conquer’ and of creating even more ‘facts’ in maritime Asia stands a real chance of success.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Niharb.