Why China's tough stance is unsustainable

Why China's tough stance is unsustainable

China's tough stand on maritime territorial disputes, evident in the confrontations last year with the Philippines in the South China Sea and with Japan in the East China Sea, has endured through China's leadership transition and now marks an important shift in China's foreign policy. This has serious implications for its neighbours and concerned powers including the United States.

China's success in advancing its claims against the Philippines and in challenging Japan's control of disputed islands head the list of reasons why the new Chinese policy is likely to continue and perhaps intensify over the next year.

Few governments are prepared to resist. Over the longer term, a wide range of existing and potentially adverse circumstances at home and abroad could prompt Chinese leaders to see the wisdom in shifting policy again, perhaps moderating their approach to these neighbours.

A Chinese surveillance ship, rear centre, sails near Uotsuri island, or Diaoyu Dao in Chinese, the biggest island in the disputed Senkaku, or Diaoyu, group early this month. The dispute has strained relations between China, Japan and other countries in the region. AP/KYODO NEWS

China says its foreign policy is consistent but experience shows repeated shifts and changes, with serious consequences. Mao Zedong was notorious for changing foreign policy for the sake of revolutionary and other goals; Deng Xiaoping shifted repeatedly as he sought China's advantage in the prevailing US-Soviet-Chinese triangular dynamic. Post-Cold War Chinese leaders advanced conventional relations in neighbouring Asia, but negative reactions to Chinese military assertiveness over Taiwan and the South China Sea in 1995 prompted an emphasis on reassurance in the form of a New Security Concept.

The US and its allies were still targeted but Beijing eventually felt compelled to shift again at the turn of the century to an approach of peaceful rise, later called peaceful development, which tried to reassure the US and its allies as well as the Asian neighbours.

The focus on peace, development and cooperation was welcomed and continues as the main emphasis in Chinese foreign policy, but it has been accompanied in recent years by repeated use of coercion and intimidation well beyond internationally accepted norms in China's broad maritime claims.

In short, the principles and praxis of Chinese foreign and security policy continue to change, reflecting a mix of domestic priorities, challenges and considerations, as well as treatment and acceptance by neighbours and others abroad.

Last year saw this toughness established as a pillar of Chinese policy to the region. In the case of the Philippines, Chinese actions involved diplomatic threats, economic sanctions unbound by international norms, and coastguard forces intimidating Philippine forces and fishermen. Chinese leaders manipulated Asean leadership and undermined its unity to ensure China had its way on the South China Sea.

In the case of Japan, China fostered mass demonstrations in over 100 Chinese cities, leading to violence and destruction against a foreign country's property and interests not seen since the worst days of the Cultural Revolution. There were economic sanctions unbridled by world rules and deployments of coastguard and other forces directly challenging Japanese counterparts for control of disputed islands.

Rather than looking at China's own actions causing friction with neighbours, authoritative Chinese commentary blamed the neighbours along with alleged US efforts to incite the Philippines, Japan and other Asian governments to contest Chinese claims.

Chinese commentaries laid out the implications clearly. Those neighbours and other concerned powers that accept Chinese claims are promised a peaceful relationship of "win-win" cooperation. Those that don't, which include US allies, the Philippines and Japan, are subjected to heavy coercion and threats, thus far short of direct use of military force. US interventions against bullying were attacked strongly. To the satisfaction of Chinese commentators, they have become less frequent over the past year.

China was successful in using coercion and intimidation in advancing control over some contested territory in the South China Sea. It also established a pattern of employing force short of military means and other pressure to more actively assert claims and dispute Japanese control over East China Sea islands. The Philippines continued to complain loudly and Japan to resist firmly. But most concerned governments came to recognise that China's "win-win" formula emphasising cooperation over common ground was premised on the foreign government eschewing actions acutely sensitive to China over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, and that the scope of this sensitivity had been broadened to include the maritime disputes.

Southeast Asian countries have had limited success in negotiating with China. Asean focused on getting China to agree to a code of conduct in the South China Sea, and the prospects for a fully negotiated legally binding agreement will test the resolve and unity of Asean member states, as well as China's commitment to regional stability; until now, China has seemed satisfied with its ability to manage the process along lines acceptable to its own narrow interests.

US policy focused on calming tensions while concurrently deepening security and other cooperation with allies and friends under the rubric of the Barack Obama government's "rebalance" in the Asia-Pacific region. US leaders also worked to persuade China to moderate its behaviour during enhanced high-level China-US exchanges. None of the above seems likely to prompt China to change its current hard line on the territorial disputes.

Against this background, China's neighbours and concerned powers will need to calibrate more carefully their actions related to maritime disputes. Unfortunately, the parameters of China's acute concerns regarding maritime claims remain unclear. Thus, the various Southeast Asian claimants which continue to carry out activities in South China Sea areas subject to Chinese claims will face continued uncertainty over which actions might prove sensitive enough to provoke Chinese coercion and intimidation.

Meanwhile, the drivers of China's new toughness on maritime disputes include rising patriotic and nationalist sentiment in Chinese elite and public opinion and the growing capabilities in Chinese military, coastguard, fishery and oil exploration forces. The latter are sure to grow in the coming years, foreshadowing greater Chinese willingness to use coercion in seeking advances in nearby seas. Nationalist sentiment remains a volatile and potentially very disruptive force, as seen in the mass rallies against Japan last year.

While a forecast of varied regional acquiescence to China's new toughness on maritime claims seems most likely, circumstances in China and abroad could cause the Xi Jinping leadership to shift again and perhaps moderate its approach. Japan is a formidable power; its leadership romped home to victory in Sunday's elections and appear set to remain at the helm for several years. The US-Japan security alliance is strong and getting stronger.

Tokyo seems prepared to counter and fend off Chinese probes and intimidation as it readies for a longer term struggle. A prolonged Chinese standoff with Japan would come on top of protracted crises on the Korean peninsula.

In Southeast Asia, a broad coalition of claimant and non-claimant states persist in efforts to establish a code of conduct for the contested waters that would curb Chinese assertiveness. In effect, the eastern rim of China - from the Korean peninsula to Indonesia, by far the most important area in contemporary Chinese foreign policy - is tense and unstable. Managing active tensions in the Koreas, the East China Sea and South China is sure to preoccupy still-untested Chinese leaders who stress China's need to focus on numerous domestic problems involving corruption, economic slowdown, social instability and environmental degradation.

When confronted with an array of problems, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping prioritised. They determined and focused on the "main" problem and tried to play down or ease tensions in other areas so as to manage the effort against the primary target more effectively. Xi Jinping now faces three big foreign policy problems, along with a host of domestic issues.

Unfortunately, Mr Xi does not have the power of Mao or Deng to decide to play down some foreign policy disputes in order to focus on a top priority issue. Thus, his policy may drift along established lines, until negative consequences of continued tensions and preoccupations along China's sensitive rim mandate a new shift, possibly toward a more nuanced and moderate approach that is more convergent with regional institutions and expectations.

Robert Sutter is professor of practice of international affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, Washington DC. Chin-Hao Huang is a PhD candidate and Russell Endowed Fellow in political science at the University of Southern California. The article originally appeared in the Pacific Forum CSIS Pacnet series.

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