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One More Thing China Might be Thinking

by Adam Segal
September 24, 2010

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

4 Comments

  • Posted by Don

    You sound just about right on Zhongnanhai. They must be indeed pondering on what’s all the recent brouhaha about for something they’ve been pushing for a long time. After all, Thomas Friedman called Washington braindead at the WEF, not Beijing. What Washington hasn’t come to grips with yet is how to chart out future scenarios within the long game, taking into account strong irredentist domestic sentiment in the PRC fostered by the CPC, which we are somehow bound to appreciate as Josh Kurlantzik points out.

    A simple exercise on where all this might be headed — take a 40s map of the PRC and compare it with the map today (including disputes with all its neighbors), and then project the size of the Chinese economy and military in the coming decades to see what the possibilities are.

  • Posted by Nguyen

    Asking the question what China is thinking is a good place to start. American foreign policy dealing with China started by supporting Taiwan in the hope that Taiwan would one day could reclaim China. In the 70′s America recognized that China in fact was lost to communism. Then Nixon and Kissinger shifted to the policy of accommodating China. China let US using it as counter weight to Soviet Union because Deng Xiaoping knew it is the only way to reform China by tapping western markets and technological knowhow. China attacked Vietnam in 1979 to demonstrate that the domino theory no longer applies. China attitude was and remains sacrificing insignificant issues to achieve bigger goals. It threw its ideology overboard and by intertwining its economy with US it made itself indispensable. China expansionism made during its historical course its territory as big as today. Though China has its own internal problems to solve it will look outward for resources to solve those problems. The maritime conflicts in the South and East already give us a glimpse what the future will hold. By insisting on its historical rights China is practicing a revisionist foreign policy. So, what is China thinking ? China will defend its core interests with all means despite protests of its smaller neighbors. China will distract the Western world by engaging in side shows like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, trade, climate change,… and get out of a military conflict with US until it has dominated Asia. After that, well, its another story.

  • Posted by Gringo Capet

    Dr Segal is right to point out Beijing’s maritime claims are not recent. In fact, the PRC merely adopted with little change the KMT’s 1947 claims in 1949. It was the KMT ‘map’ which the PRC presented at an international maritime forum in Surabaya in 1993. If you check the claims made by the KMT, now in Taiwan, and the CPC-led PRC, you will find little difference. Washington has shown little angst over the KMT’s claims, though. Methinks this inconsistency is a weakness in America’s, and ASEAN’s, position.

    With regard to freedom of navigation being in the national interest of the USA, is this presumably global freedom an exclusive US interest? Will the US naval surveillance ops around china’s shores persist unabated while Beijing’s naval capability grows and the PLAN acts to secure Chinese interests close to the ‘Western Pacific littoral’? If the answer proves to be ‘yes,’ then confrontations leading to conflict become more likely than otherwise.

    Chinese officials have asked if Washington would happily permit PLAN, or other non-allied navies, to conduct similar ops along America’s coasts to those undertaken by PACOM vessels near Chinese shores. Reciprocity is one measure of logicality.

    However, Beijing may not have any wish to conduct such missions vis-a-vis the USA; Washington should make clear its presumed claim to the ‘right’ to conduct whatever ops it chose outside the local littoral state’s 12-nautical mile territorial waters limit wherever in the world its ‘national interests’ took it. Then, at least, it would be clear that Washington viewed the rest of world’s oceans and seas beyond the 12-nm zone its own backyard.

    There is an inconsistency between claiming to be a member of the normatively frame-worked international security system and demanding the right to stay beyond those norms oneself. The US could logically ask South China Sea disputants to adhere to the UNCLOS only if it had signed and ratified the Convention itself first. It appears to be such a simple argument to understand and, yet, few American analysts see any point to it.

    And that may be one indicator of the dangers posed by this dialogue of the deaf now underway.

  • Posted by SN

    As a Chinese observer, I think Adam Segal’s historical perspective is in order. I agree with Josh Kurlantzik’s points about setting down a “marker” for the future and the impact of rising nationalism on policymaking in China. I am not sure about greater PLA influence in the formulation of foreign policy and the relationship between China’s perceived aggressiveness and the 2012 succession. I see no evidence for Josh’s second point.

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