The Limits of Hegemony: China’s Troubled Assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific

Detail depicting a water dragon, part of the Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing (User Jan, Flickr Commons) Over the next decade, American defense spending is expected to fall by 27 percent in real terms. Beijing, what with its recent bold forays in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, seems confident that Washington’s interest in China’s extended littoral has very likely peaked. By declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone covering contested parts of the East China Sea and by temporarily moving multi-billion dollar drilling rigs to irksome spots in the South China Sea, China appears intent on convincing its maritime neighbors that Washington’s defense commitment to the Asia-Pacific region is wavering. In doing so, Beijing displays an eagerness to preempt challenges to its regional claims, or at least make potential challengers to its claims far more cautious in their response.

However, given China’s strained historical relationships with Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines, it is difficult to imagine that these maritime neighbors will be easily spooked into adopting a more accommodating stance. Rather, as Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Korea upgrade their naval vessels and maritime surveillance capabilities—and build closer ties with each other, Australia, and India—Beijing risks becoming more isolated. This will especially be the case if the Chinese navy finds it more difficult to dominate these waters than initially expected.

At least for the moment, the more likely consequence of Beijing’s overconfidence will be a further internationalization of maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas—an outcome China desperately wishes to avoid. An overbearing Chinese navy would also render countries closer to the vital straits of Malacca—through which almost three-quarters of the oil imported by China passes—less inclined to share security responsibilities with Beijing. If this occurs, China could find it has little control over this vital sea line of communication in times of crisis.

Equally worrying is the possibility that China’s aggressive posturing could result in a more toxic international environment. Such mistrust would make it harder for China (and almost everyone else in the region) to scout for the 11 billion barrels of oil and the more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that likely lie under the East and South China Seas. By 2035, China is expected to account for 34 percent of the total amount of oil Asia will consume. Considering China’s significant energy demand and the advantages—both fiscal and security—of obtaining oil from places closer than Saudi Arabia and Angola, continued aggressive posturing and coercion in these potentially resource-rich waters is hardly in Beijing’s best interests.

Yet the fact that there are, so far, few signs of a shift towards restraint or inclusive dialogue is not entirely surprising. The reasons behind China’s maritime assertiveness go beyond merely ensuring access to these undersea resources. The aggressive posturing instead appears to be driven more by a perception that the present set of international norms, especially those that govern the global maritime order, often rob Beijing of what it considers a deservedly significant role on the international stage. Reconstituting some of these rules—or at least how they apply to the Asia-Pacific—could be a welcome precedent for Beijing as it aspires for a better seat at the geopolitical table.

China’s continued assertiveness also risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. The longer Beijing resorts to such tactics to forge a more favorable set of international norms, the harder it becomes for it to alter its course. If distrust becomes the reflexive response to China, wary maritime neighbors will likely brush aside China’s nascent steps toward accommodation. In such a climate, overtures like Beijing’s recent efforts to engage Japan in informal talks about the East China Sea could increasingly be seen as mere pretext. If a softer approach seems doomed to fail, China might reasonably conclude that its best bet would be to redouble its assertiveness against its neighbors. Without assured naval hegemony, Beijing could find its more capable neighbors inclined to respond to its assertive actions in kind.

That a lasting solution can emerge from this situation seems unlikely. In order to avoid worsening regional distrust, China could consider toning down its assertiveness and swiftly cease advocating dispute resolution through exclusively bilateral tracks. Multilateral talks will, inevitably, reduce the chances that Beijing will get all of what it desires in the East and South China Seas. Weighed against the prospect of increasingly alienated neighbors that are at best disinterested in China’s economic and geo-political interests in the broader region, however, inclusive dialogue should hold some appeal for Beijing.

To reduce distrust, China could also advocate for joint oil and natural gas exploration in the disputed waters while temporarily putting aside the question of settling its maritime disputes with its neighbors. For China, these disputes are not primarily about hydrocarbons or rare earth metals; such a compromise might therefore prove more palatable. Other confidence-building measures could include setting up communication systems between China’s civilian and auxiliary forces and those of other regional claimants to help generate familiarity with different regional states’ individual operational methods, thereby increasing information flow and reducing the risk of miscalculation. China should also seek to generate regional goodwill by exploring more ways to jointly control marine pollution with its neighbors.

How likely is Beijing to pursue any of these steps? The answer will ultimately depend on the extent to which it recognizes—as global and regional hegemons like the United States and the United Kingdom often have—that shaping geopolitical outcomes according to national interests is rarely a straightforward affair. Even massive power asymmetries seldom guarantee success, and compromise, rather than assertiveness or obstinacy, can often prove far more advantageous. It’s hard to precisely judge how Beijing’s policymakers regard such reasoning. It is worth noting, however, that—at least for the moment—they have not dismissed it outright. That alone leaves some room for optimism.