United States Pushes Back Against Chinese Assertiveness; Xi Urges Dialogue
Carefully sequenced statements by Obama administration officials in late January and February pushed back against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and other maritime disputes, taking Sino-American competition to a new stage. America’s measured resolve adds to circumstances that work against overall success in China’s coercive measures to advance influence and erode US leadership in Asia. In the short term, recent developments suggest continued muddled Chinese assertiveness and restraint, with American attentiveness and actions countering the former and encouraging the latter. Although respected specialists like Marvin Ott and others are more pessimistic in assessing regional dynamics, the evidence presented here shows effective US leadership curbing aggression and promoting stability.
US Push Back
National Security Council Asian Director Evan Medeiros told the Japanese news agency Kyodo on January 31 that US opposition to China declaring an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the disputed South China Sea, following Beijing’s abruptly announced ADIZ over the disputed East China Sea in November, would involve “changes in our presence and military posture in the region.” The US State Department spokesperson the same day reinforced Medeiros’ stance against a Chinese ADIZ in the South China Sea.
Medeiros firmly reiterated US opposition to Chinese behavior as provocative and destabilizing. He strongly affirmed support for Japan facing Chinese attempts to use the ADIZ to bolster its claims to disputed East China Sea territories. He dismissed the notion that the United States sought to join with China in managing world affairs in a so-called Group of Two framework. Stressing “serious sources of competition” with China, he said the United States seeks ever closer relations with Japan, the top major power in Asia that shares American interests and values and cooperates closely with the United States.
In congressional testimony on February 5, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel advanced US criticism of a long list of recent Chinese provocations in dealings with the Philippines and Japan in disputes over islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. He capped his indictment with the first explicit US official rebuke of China’s broad and vaguely defined claims to most of the South China Sea based on historical interaction and a nine-dash line shown in Chinese maps. He said, “Under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features. Any use of the ‘nine-dash line’ by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law. The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust the nine-dash claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea.”
Russel endorsed the Philippines pursuing an arbitration case under the Law of the Sea on the legality of China’s claim to the South China Sea. Manila’s effort has been strongly condemned by China. And he highlighted the strengthening of American alliances and security relationships as an essential means to maintain stability amid recent controversies he saw caused mainly by China.
Secretary of State John Kerry set the stage for his visit to Asia, with stops in Seoul, Beijing, Jakarta, and Abu Dhabi, with a cordial meeting with the Japanese foreign minister in Washington on February 7 preparing for President Obama’s visit to Tokyo in April. Kerry’s lengthy remarks to the media depicted US-Japan relations as “the cornerstone” of the administration’s Asia rebalance. He advised that the United States cannot achieve its goals without “ironclad guarantees between the United States and Japan.” He pointedly attacked “China’s attempt to change the status quo by coercion and intimidation in the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea,” highlighting common Japanese-American resolve in dealing with Chinese actions.
In a related move, the Chief of Naval Operations visiting Manila for ongoing US efforts to strengthen military ties told an audience at the Philippines defense college on February 13 that the United States will “help” the Philippines in the event that China occupies disputed islands in the South China Sea. Admiral Jonathan Greenert also stressed that it would honor its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines amid the territorial conflict with China. The remarks were the strongest public US declaration of support for the Philippines regarding the disputed South China Sea since tensions rose in 2012.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman rebuffed American criticisms in remarks on February 1, 8, and 14, but there was little other authoritative reaction from China. Meeting with Kerry during his Beijing stop on February 14, President Xi Jinping struck a conciliatory posture. “We will continue to enhance dialogue, boost mutual trust and co-operation and properly handle differences in the new year so as to forge ahead with the lasting and healthy development of ties,” Xi said. For his part, Kerry also was upbeat after meetings with his hosts, saying the talks were constructive and the “tone was excellent.” “There were some differences, but they’re managed and handled, exactly as it should be,” he said.
Explaining Chinese Assertiveness and Restraint
A muddled pattern of assertiveness and restraint characterizes Chinese competition with the United States along the rim of Asia. Coercive and intimidating practices short of direct application of military force against its neighbors advances incrementally China’s territorial claims and security interests in ways supported by Chinese elites and public opinion. The practices are likely to continue and perhaps advance with the expansion of Chinese coast guard forces, supporting military forces, and economic, administrative, and other means of influence. At the same time, Chinese decision makers seem very reluctant to risk serious confrontation with the United States over these disputes. The reasons for the restraint rest on the relatively weak and seriously encumbered position of China, notably along its important eastern rim, especially when compared with resilient US leadership in the Asia-Pacific region. The asymmetry of power and influence was explained in the posting “Obama’s Rebalance, Competition with China, and Enduring US Leadership in Southeast Asia” on January 27. Chinese restraint is reinforced by: 1) internal preoccupations; and 2) ever growing interdependence with the United States.
The Chinese leaders want to sustain one-party rule and to do so they require continued economic growth, which advances the material benefits of Chinese people and assures general public support and legitimacy for the communist government. Such economic growth and continued one-party rule require stability at home and abroad, especially in nearby Asia where confrontation would have a serious negative impact on Chinese growth. At the same time, the need for vigilance in protecting Chinese security and sovereignty remains among the top leadership concerns as evidenced by the long and costly build-up of military forces to deal with a Taiwan contingency involving the United States and more recent use of various means of state power to advance territorial claims in nearby disputed seas. There is less clarity as to where Chinese international ambitions for regional and global leadership fit in the current priorities of the Beijing leaders, but there is little doubt that the domestic concerns get overall priority.
The wide range of domestic concerns preoccupying the Xi Jinping leadership involve:
- weak leadership legitimacy highly dependent on how the leaders’ performance is seen at any given time
- pervasive corruption viewed as sapping public support and undermining administrative efficiency
- widening income gaps posing challenges to the communist regime ostensibly dedicated to advancing the disadvantaged
- weak leadership legitimacy highly dependent on how the leaders’ performance is seen at any given time
- widespread social turmoil reportedly involving 100,000-200,000 mass incidents annually that are usually directed at government officials and/or aspects of state policies; managing such incidents and related domestic control measures involves budget outlays greater that China’s impressive national defense budget
- highly resource intensive economy; (e.g., China uses four times the amount of oil to advance its economic growth to a certain level than does the United States.) from which enormous and rapidly growing environmental damage results
- and need for major reform of an economic model in use in China for over three decades that is widely seen to have reached a point of diminishing returns
The Chinese leadership set forth in November 2013 an ambitious and wide-ranging agenda of economic and related domestic reforms. How the more than 60 measures set forth for reform will be implemented and how they will be made to interact effectively with one another are widely seen to require strong and sustained efforts of top leaders, probably for many years. Under these circumstances, those same leaders would seem unlikely to seek confrontation with the United States. Xi’s accommodation of Obama in California in 2013 and his leadership’s continued emphasis on positive relations in seeking a new kind of major power relationship underlines this trend. Xi has presided over China’s greater assertiveness on maritime territorial issues that involve the United States, but thus far probes generally have been crafted to avoid direct confrontation with the superpower.
The second set of limits on Chinese tough measures leading to serious tensions with the United States involves strong and ever-growing interdependence in US-Chinese relations. At the start of the twenty-first century, growing economic interdependence reinforced each government’s tendency to emphasize the positive and pursue constructive relations with one another. A pattern of dualism in relations arose as part of the developing positive equilibrium. It involved constructive and cooperative engagement on the one hand and contingency planning or hedging on the other. It reflected a mix of converging and competing interests and prevailing leadership suspicions and cooperation.
The dualism showed as each government used engagement to build positive, cooperative ties while at the same time seeking to use these ties to build interdependencies and webs of relationships that had the effect of constraining the other power from taking actions that oppose its interests. The Council on Foreign Relations was explicit about this approach in a book entitled Weaving the Net, arguing for engagement that would over time compel changes in Chinese policies in accord with norms supported by the United States. While the analogy is not precise, the policies of engagement pursued by the two countries toward one another featured respective “Gulliver strategies” that were designed to tie down aggressive, assertive, or other negative policy tendencies of the other power through webs of interdependence in bilateral and multilateral relationships.
As time went on, both sides became increasingly aware of how their respective interests were tied to the wellbeing and success of the other, thereby limiting the tendency of the past to apply pressure on one another. In effect, interdependence has worked to constrain both sides against taking forceful action against each other.