Jennifer Lind is a associate professor of government at Dartmouth College and the author of "Sorry States: Apologies in International Politics."
UPDATED AUGUST 23, 2016, 3:20 AM
China’s foreign policy is growing more assertive. For decades Beijing has made territorial claims in the East China and the South China Seas. But now Beijing is defending those claims; Chinese-flagged vessels increasingly enter disputed waters, extracting resources and harassing other claimants’ ships. In addition, China is constructing and militarizing artificial islands, and asserting maritime rights there beyond what international law allows. While these actions have provoked anger among China’s neighbors, so far Beijing’s assertive turn has been largely successful.
As countries grow accustomed to deferring to Beijing’s claims, challenging them will feel increasingly like a dangerous provocation.
China’s neighbors are not balancing against its encroachments. Most of the targets of China’s recent moves – e.g., the small ASEAN nations -- have modest economies and tiny defense budgets. They are understandably reluctant to confront China, a growing military power, and an important economic partner. The Philippines has resisted China more than others, but principally in the courtroom, not at sea. Japan is the only regional actor with the latent power to balance Beijing. But judging from recent debates in Tokyo about even small changes to its defense posture, Japan lacks the will to organize a regional balancing effort.
This leaves the United States. In the East China Sea, Washington has vowed to protect islands that Japan disputes with China. But in the South China Sea, the United States has taken a softer stance: using naval movements to reinforce the principle of freedom of navigation. By framing the issue around free navigation—i.e., the right to sail through East Asia’s waterways—the United States is notably dodging the question of who owns those islands. In fact, U.S. actions may be strengthening China’s claims. Perhaps Washington is wise to avert a U.S.-China confrontation on this issue. But Beijing is scoring unchecked gains.
Are these indeed gains or merely symbolic victories for Beijing? The expanded islands, new military garrisons, and air defense identification zones (the one China declared already, and future zones that are likely to follow) do not change the military balance yet. In the event of war, the isolated island outposts could be easily cut off or bombed.
But China’s gains are political more than military, and long-term rather than immediate. The new military facilities, airspace regulations, and economic development of offshore resources condition the norms and day-to-day practices in the region. As countries grow accustomed to deferring to Beijing’s claims, challenging them will feel increasingly like a dangerous provocation. And the South China Sea will become China’s lake.