May 29, 2014 1:48 PM EDT
Over the past two months, as China’s maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have escalated, most foreign observers and American officials, though worried, have shown little concern that the conflicts would explode into a full-scale war. After all, for more than three decades China has profited enormously from being part of the global economic system. Its military, though growing, remains far less technologically advanced than American armed forces. And for 30 years, predictions that China one day would try to dominate its region by force have always been proven wrong.
Repeated warnings, with nothing coming of them, created a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario in Washington. In the early 1990s many human-rights activists, including some Democratic politicians, worried that China, ostracized after the Tiananmen crackdown, would lash out. China indeed fired missiles near Taiwan in 1995, but after the Clinton administration sent aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait, Beijing backed down. Instead it launched a charm offensive aimed at its neighbors, boosting aid, investment, and cultural diplomacy across the region. Western foreign policy leaders and China experts have come to assume that China has too much invested in the world today to smash it up. Beijing has “embraced global institutions and their rules and norms. … [That] has helped guide its spectacular economic growth and integration into the world economy,” notes China specialist Wendy Dobson of the University of Toronto, in a typical commentary about Beijing’s role in the world.
But this time the wolf might actually be here. China’s highly nationalistic new leadership may no longer simply accede to the existing international economic and security order; instead it appears to want to change that order, even if that means harming some of China’s most important trade ties. Beijing has started to show its tough-guy stance by, among other things, claiming ownership of islands lying between it and Japan and by enforcing its massive—and utterly ridiculous—claims to almost the entire South China Sea. But unlike 10 years ago, many of Beijing’s angry neighbors are no longer weaklings.
Why has China abandoned its smiling diplomacy, which helped it sign a free-trade agreement with Southeast Asia and gave it enormous influence over Asian governments? After all, by scaring countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in recent years, China’s leaders have not only damaged trade relationships but also pushed many of these nations into the arms of the U.S.
Amid a war of words and water cannon with Vietnam, President Xi Jinping declared that “in Chinese blood, there is no DNA for aggression or hegemony.” But Xi almost surely approved the recent decision to move an oil rig into waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, and he is hardly backing down. After the anti-China riots in Vietnam, China’s foreign ministry declared that it was Hanoi, not Beijing, that was “distorting the facts [and] conflating right and wrong on the global stage” and implicitly threatened further punishment.
Today’s Chinese leaders, particularly those immediately below Xi, came of age after the Cultural Revolution. Instead of chaos and poverty, they have known an increasingly rich and powerful China. Within the Communist Party, the hawks have applied pressure on top leaders to take tougher and tougher policies. They have a ready audience: Xi himself always had nationalist leanings and came into office vowing to restore the greatness China enjoyed for centuries. And compared with even a decade ago, when most Chinese wanted their leaders to focus on continuing the country’s economic miracle, the ever-richer middle class is interested in foreign relations and staunchly backs a more forceful leadership.
With China’s impressive weathering of the global economic downturn and with the rest of Asia becoming dependent on trade and investment from China, Beijing believes that its territorial rivals cannot, over the long run, afford to fight back. Although China’s actions might lead its neighbors to work with the U.S., many Chinese officials believe rightly or wrongly that Asian nations cannot align with a weakening U.S. forever. What’s more, China has effectively defanged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) so that the organization cannot stand up for members such as the Philippines or Vietnam. Beijing has done so by essentially buying the loyalty of some Asean countries, such as Cambodia. Since the Asean nations operate by consensus and unanimity, China needs only one country on its side to sabotage the group.
The Philippines had developed warm feelings for the Chinese during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when China invested in a massive new railway project in the Manila region and became one of the country’s biggest foreign aid donors. But those feelings have curdled. Filipinos are coming to the conclusion that Beijing is serious about claiming all of the South China Sea and will not settle for anything less. When Philippine President Benigno Aquino III publicly questioned the claims, China disinvited him to a trade fair, even though such diplomatic snubs are almost unheard of.
Aquino recently told Bloomberg News that he wakes up every day thinking about China’s threats to his country. Manila’s dilapidated navy is no challenge to China’s military, which just acquired its first aircraft carrier. Since 2010 the Philippine government, which two decades ago threw out U.S. bases, has been sending one top official after another to Washington to demand, cajole, and plead for military equipment and other aid.
China’s military buildup and more aggressive behavior has sparked an arms race, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam recently purchasing submarines, cruisers, fighter jets, and other arms. Southeast Asia’s arms purchases are growing faster than almost any other region in the world, with military spending rising 3.6 percent in 2013, according to an analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. China boosted its military spending by more than 12 percent last year.
All-out conflict in Asia is not inevitable, despite China’s burgeoning power and nationalism. If the Asean nations were able to unite more effectively, it could apply diplomatic pressure on China to negotiate some of the claims, reducing the possibility of military conflict. A hotline connecting top Chinese leaders to the capitals of Southeast Asia doesn’t exist. But if one were put in place, it might help prevent small incidents from escalating into war. Otherwise, the potential for conflict is high. If China tried to move Philippine marines already encamped on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, Manila, riding a wave of nationalist sentiment, might feel compelled to strike back, launching an attack on Chinese ships. If China struck back with its own navy and air force, Manila would have no one to talk to immediately in Beijing to stop the violence from escalating.
There is also immense risk that the U.S. would be drawn into fighting. The Obama administration has stepped up arms sales to the Philippines and in April 2014 signed a defense agreement with the country that will allow U.S. forces to use Manila’s bases. In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a landmark speech in which she declared that the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the U.S., the first time it had been referred to that way. At the time almost all Obama administration officials privately counseled reporters, policy analysts, and Asian leaders that China would never precipitate a war that could entangle the U.S. But that was when saying anything to the contrary was crying wolf. The countries of Southeast Asia see the wolf at the door. And with Washington increasingly committing itself to backing Asian partners, the U.S. might feel compelled to join a conflict as well.