Self-defense or Expansionism?

By Saskia Kok, on 5 January 2014

By Jack Harris

Relations amongst the nations surrounding the East China Sea have been marked by mutual suspicion and nervousness over the past few weeks. China declared a 200 kilometer wide band of sea around its coast to be an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), within which, China asserts, all foreign aircraft are obliged to identify themselves or face as yet unspecified defensive measures.

The zone and rules applied within it are hardly remarkable; Japan and the US have declared zones, ADIZ extending to barely 150 kilometers away from Chinese shores. However, the Chinese ADIZ encompasses islands claimed by Japan and South Korea, as well as slicing through bustling international shipping lanes that the US has made clear it does not want to see become the dominion of any one country. All three nations have reacted angrily, with both Japan and the US sending military jets through the ADIZ, where they were trailed by Chinese fighters.

The greatest cause for worry is not the zone itself but the broader strategy pursued by China in its territorial disputes over the past few years; China has rejected not just multilateral but even bilateral negotiation, in favour of unassailable declarations of absolute sovereignty backed up by economic coercion and vague military threats. Over the past few years, China has suspended exports to Japan of rare earths (vital for the country’s electronic industry) and harrassed Japanese factories operating in the country, while bellicose commentators employed by the semi-independent army have kept up a stream of vitriol against the country.

This strategy of essentially bullying neighbours into compliance with Chinese demands has predictably self-defeating: neighbours to the east and the south have begun cooperation in defence and foreign policy to a degree that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Korea and Japan, whose relations have long been marred by lingering Korean bitterness over Japan’s occupation of the country in the 1930s, now find themselves united by a common interest in checking Chinese expansionism. Indonesia, Vietnam, and even India have begun to speak more overtly of security cooperation with Japan and with one another.

In other words, China seems to be risking becoming surrounded by a ring of hostile states, the scenario its leaders have long feared the most, for the sake of acquiring a few rocks (the population of the Senkakus consists solely of a few hundred seagulls) and placating domestic nationalists eager for a fight with Japan.

To understand this seemingly bizarre strategy, one has to appreciate the extent to which containment is viewed in China not as a possible future consequence of foreign policy mistakes but as a fait accompli. This narrative, one especially popular among the hawkish groups that dominate Chinese strategic circles, holds that all American action in the region, from its longstanding support for Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines to its recent rapprochements with Myanmar and Vietnam, is directed towards constraining and undermining China and preventing a challenge to its own global hegemony.

With such assumptions, China’s strategic priorities seem quite different; making concessions for the sake of stable relations with neighbouring states hardly seems a promising strategy if those neighbours are assumed to be working in concert to contain China. China’s ADIZ aggressive pursuit of other territorial claims conversely seem less like pointless antagonism and instead like an indispensable first step towards pushing back against an ever-tightening circle of American pawns.

This is significant because America’s response to the ADIZ and other instances of Chinese aggression – appealing to China’s better judgement and urging restraint – will simply not work if large swathes of China’s foreign policy community assume a priori that the US is both hostile and duplicitous. Unless some shift can be effected in the paranoid mindset of China’s leaders, the risk of conflict in the seas around China will continue to rise, as demonstrated earlier this week when a Chinese frigate almost rammed an American surveillance ship in the South China Sea.

The US and its allies are hardly in a position to transform China’s strategic assumptions, but America might hand some relief to the few beleaguered doves in China’s government by at least making its goals in Asia more explicit. Barack Obama’s administration continues to claim that its “pivot” to Asia is in no way directed at China, in a remarkable insult to the intelligence of the Chinese.

There are more open strategies that could be pursued. The US could lay down a firm principle of opposition to further military expansion by the PRC, while emphasizing that the US is not engaged in any attempt to bring about regime change in China (which it is certainly not, quite simply because it does not have the means to do so), placing defensive conflict prevention at the centre of its China policy.

Such a change in rhetoric will likely have little impact within China, but it could serve as the beginning of a much needed change of approach towards relations with China in the US and Europe: a greater focus on convincing China that it faces no coherent threat from the West, instead of wasting political capital on formalistic “criticism” of China’s human rights record. Only if Chinese fears can be abated can any significant shift towards stability in East Asia’s seas become a possibility.