For All The Sea In China

by Jonah Shepp

Ali Wyne reviews Robert Kaplan’s new book, Asia’s Cauldron, which explains the South China Sea’s centrality to Pacific politics:

He emphasizes three points. First, Chinese primacy in the South China Sea “would go a long way toward making China more than merely the first among equals of Eastern Hemispheric powers.” Second, the principal risk for China’s smaller neighbors is not invasion, but “Finlandization.” The growing gravitational pull of China’s economy doubles as a carrot—your economy will continue to flourish if you keep yourself open to our exports and investments—and a stick—you will endanger an increasingly important component of your economy if you take actions that undermine our national interests. Behind that dual-use instrument is an increasingly capable People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Given its aspiration of achieving a peaceful rise, China would prefer that its smaller neighbors accommodate themselves to its perspectives on the territorial disputes that are roiling the region (essentially, Kaplan explains, “give in without violence”). Third, the US “must be prepared to allow, in some measure, for a rising Chinese navy to assume its rightful position, as the representative of the region’s largest indigenous power.”

Posner analyzes China’s escalating disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over maritime borders and islands in the sea:

One question that arises is why China and its neighbors are suddenly having so many conflicts that are violent or near-violent. The conflicting territorial claims have existed for decades but violence has been sporadic until recently (aside from the China-Vietnam War).

M. Taylor Fravel argues that China seeks to “consolidate” its claims by keeping other countries out of disputed areas. That would explain why China reacts aggressively–by sending in ships and planes–typically after the neighbors pass some law or take other actions that make clear that they consider their claims valid. But why are those countries provoking China in this way, and why now?

As Fravel suggests, China’s strategy is one of delay while claiming that the disputes are unresolved. The neighbors, by contrast, claim that there is no dispute and their claims are valid. China’s strategy thus seems more passive. And the reason is surely that time is on China’s side. China has grown more rapidly than all of its neighbors and looks likely to continue to do so for the near future, at least. As it becomes more dominant–both economically and militarily–its neighbors will be in a worse position to counter its claims in their shared waters.

Hugh White suspects that Beijing’s recent aggressiveness is also meant to limit American influence:

By using direct armed pressure in these disputes, China makes its neighbours more eager for US military support, and at the same time makes America less willing to give it, because of the clear risk of a direct US-China clash. In other words, by confronting America’s friends with force, China confronts America with the choice between deserting its friends and fighting China. Beijing is betting that, faced with this choice, America will back off and leave its allies and friends unsupported. This will weaken America’s alliances and partnerships, undermine US power in Asia, and enhance China’s power.

This view of China’s motives explains its recent conduct.