The foreign policy strategy emerging from China’s new leadership may include a series of incremental steps calibrated to blunt U.S. influence across Asia and sow doubt about America’s commitment to its allies in the region.
Potential next steps following last month’s imposition of an air defense zone over the East China Sea in the face of U.S. condemnation include more vigorously challenging aircraft that enter the area, imposing a similar zone over disputed territory in the South China Sea and asserting naval control over islands also claimed by other nations.
“Such actions, if they occur, will cause greater worries in the region and increase calls for the U.S. to strengthen its military, diplomatic and economic presence,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior Asia adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The risk is of greater U.S.-China strategic competition.”
A year into his term as head of the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping is taking measures to bolster his nation’s standing in the region and counter an increased U.S. military deployment to Asia. The strategy features such steps as the air-zone declaration that fall short of direct confrontation yet in time alter spheres of geographic influence, according to Douglas Paal, director of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“China is playing the classic game of weiqi, wherein it slowly expands influence through steps that are not a threshold to violence and do not trigger a forcible response,” Paal said, referring to the strategic board game known as Go in English. “Next steps are likely in the South China Sea, but this will be delayed as China builds out its radar and intercept infrastructure.”
Since Xi took over, Japan has accused Chinese ships of locking fire-control radar on its vessels and China dispatched ships and aircraft near islands claimed by both sides. The Chinese navy last month deployed its Liaoning aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
The air defense zone that China announced Nov. 23 and which also drew criticism from Japan and South Korea as it covered islands they claim, gives it a strategic advantage, Li Jei, a senior captain at the China Ocean Research Center, wrote Dec. 6 in the state-run Global Times newspaper. The zone gives America and Japan “no option but to face the reality, negotiate with us, giving us favorable strategic circumstances,” Li wrote.
China’s actions are aimed at sending a message to the U.S. that it’s serious about challenging an Asian order in which America has been the dominant power for 40 years, said Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University in Canberra.
“They’re saying to America that we’re so serious about this that we’re prepared to take the risks of being provocative, in order to persuade you to take seriously that we want to change the order,” said White, author of the book “The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power.”
The increased use of naval vessels and aircraft heightens the danger of an accident or misstep that could escalate out of control. During a visit to the region last week, Vice President Joe Biden called on all sides to take practical steps to “lower the temperature.”
At the same time, the U.S. pivot “will certainly generate a lot of suspicion and worry in China,” said Dong Wang, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University in Beijing.
“Each and every one of the things China has done has been in response to what it perceives as a provocation,” Dong said, citing Japan’s decision to buy some of the islands disputed with China last year. “China is not making provocations on its own initiative.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in October he wouldn’t allow China to alter the situation around disputed islands by force. He approved a plan to shoot down any drones that enter Japan’s airspace, while a Chinese defense ministry spokesman responded that the shooting down of a drone would prompt retaliation.
“Things move much faster in the air than they do on the water and it looks like the kind of cat-and-mouse games really are transferring from the water now,” said Benjamin Charlton, Asia-Pacific analyst at Oxford Analytica, a strategic consulting firm based in Oxford, England. “That inherently raises the risk of miscalculation.”
While China has taken steps to expand its air and naval footprint, the U.S. has sent more surveillance aircraft to Japan and is stationing anti-missile interceptors on Guam as part of the rebalancing strategy that President Barack Obama detailed in 2011. The U.S. is also shifting 2,500 Marines to the Australian city of Darwin from Okinawa, Japan.
Biden made it clear on a trip to China last week that the U.S. won’t reverse its rebalancing policy. “We are and will remain a Pacific power diplomatically, economically, and militarily,” he said in a Dec. 5 speech in Beijing.
For its part, China hasn’t neglected the diplomatic front in its battle to curtail U.S. influence. With Obama distracted by tensions in the Middle East and domestic politics, China has sought to fill the vacuum and boost ties with its South East Asian neighbors, some of whom have conflicts with it over islands in the South China Sea.
A day after Obama announced in October he had canceled an Asian tour due to the government shutdown at home, China signed agreements to boost economic cooperation and defense ties with Malaysia. And while Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the region in his stead, Xi went to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bali, where he described the region as “a big family.”
“We will have to see what the U.S. will do to shore up the idea that they are in Asia to stay,” said Roderick MacFarquhar, professor emeritus of Chinese politics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “That they’re not going to quit the stage and leave it to China, and that they’re not going to desert their friends and allies.”