Opinion: Bullying Provides Only Short-Term Gain for China
Ellen L. Frost, Senior Advisor and Fellow at the East West Center and Visiting Distinguished Research Fellow at National Defense University, is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and counselor to the U.S. Trade Representative. The views expressed reflect only her own opinions.
UPDATED AUGUST 23, 2016, 3:20 AM
China is playing a long game, challenging U.S. leadership in Asia and taking advantage of the fear of escalation without triggering a full-scale war. Its behavior in the South China Sea — grabbing rocks, dredging sand, and building hardened hangars — has expanded its territorial control but is backfiring strategically.
China doesn't grasp that the balance of power in Asia is no longer a zero-sum game. Market size and cheap loans cannot buy lasting friends.
Washington is beefing up its military presence. U.S. alliances and partnerships in East and Southeast Asia are stronger than ever, and ties with new security partners are being forged. The United Nations arbitration panel ruled against China’s claims. Good will is a strategic asset, and China has squandered it.
Xi Jinping and his senior advisors may be calculating that the United States, hobbled by political dysfunction, slow growth, and a hyped-up fear of terrorists, will not respond militarily no matter what China does. If so, they are underestimating America’s will to act in support of its allies if China goes too far.
China’s challenge to Japan in the Senkakus caused President Obama to declareunconditionally that the islands are covered under the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Bilateral security cooperation has expanded.
Despite setbacks, observers expect more Chinese provocations once the China-chaired G20 meeting is over. Why is Beijing pursuing such a strategically counterproductive policy?
One possible explanation is that China’s leadership has different goals and is measuring success against different yardsticks. Although China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam can be said to have failed, Beijing declared victory and went home, suggesting that maintaining a fierce and defiant posture alone might have served its objective. The same tactic may help explain China’s outraged reaction to the judgment from the arbitration panel and its persistent posturing about its claims in the South China Sea.
Other goals might be to placate domestic hard-liners and distract the general public from problems at home. Having deliberately cultivated a sense of victimhood, the leadership now finds that popular nationalism limits its freedom of choice. But like most people, ordinary Chinese care more about local economic conditions than foreign expansion and are unlikely to be hoodwinked.
A more subtle cause of China’s seemingly counterproductive behavior might be cognitive. Xi Jinping and his top colleagues share an obsolete definition of power balances. They are right to seek adjustments in global financial institutions and to launch constructive initiatives of their own, but they have yet to grasp that the balance of power in Asia is no longer a zero-sum game. Perceived legitimacy and soft power are important. Bullying has achieved short-term tactical results but is ultimately a failing strategy in Asia, where U.S.-backed regionalism and peaceful norms underpin the region’s stability and associated prosperity. China has no genuine allies. Even market size and cheap loans cannot buy trusting and trustworthy friends.