In his most recent post on Chinese assertiveness in the South China and East China Seas, my colleague Josh Kurlantzik raises three possible answers to the question: What is China thinking? Beijing was supposedly so good at reassuring the neighbors that its rapid rise would not threaten them; it could both grow and be a responsible partner. But now, after a few short months, a decade of good work has been ruined. The neighbors are worried, and, at least according to the New York Times, they are looking to Washington.
Josh lists three things that might Beijing may be thinking.
- China is setting down a “marker” for a longer term game. It may not be able to get what it wants right now, but it can begin to set the agenda so that Japan, India, the United States, and ASEAN all enter the debate on China’s terms.
- Beijing has seriously misjudged its neighbors, thinking they are much more compliant than they really are. Josh points to Chinese policymakers’ lack of understanding of Vietnam in particular.
- Domestic politics. Popular nationalism, especially on the Internet, in effect pushes Chinese foreign policymakers to take a hard line. Also, Chinese policymaking is itself becoming more complicated with some actors–read the PLA–pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy. Finally, it may be that this is all tied to the 2012 succession, with future leaders trying to position themselves by proving they can stand up to the rest of the world.
Here’s a fourth possibility. Yes, some of the rhetoric, especially from some lower level officials has become more assertive, but the leadership at the very top does not think it is doing anything different. China has been consistently and noisily pushing very hard on maritime issues for at least the last decade (if not longer). Here’s just some of the incidents we know about: In March 2009, Chinese vessels harassed the USNS Impeccable; in 2009 China seized over 30 Vietnamese fishing vessels; and in 2005 China fired on Vietnamese ships. The Chinese have been building on Mischief Reef, which sits in water claimed by the Philippines as part of its Exclusive Economic Zone, since 1999.
Zhongnanhai may be thinking, why is everyone is now paying attention to a topic we’ve been taking a hard line on for a long time?