As many have written about recently, China is facing many difficulties as it seeks to enforce its territorial claims over vast areas of East Asia, including the South and East China Seas and Taiwan. In reality, all of these struggles reflect China’s longstanding desire to have the country’s periphery free from powers that have the potential to threaten it. What is new, however, is Beijing’s bold and seemingly impatient strategy to secure its periphery at the considerable expense of its neighbors.
Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has shown an increased tolerance for regional tensions as it vies for domination on all fronts simultaneously. This may in part be the outward reflection of Xi’s “strongman” personality, which requires near-total control domestically. More likely, China’s dash for dominance reflects a leadership consensus that the country must quickly exploit Beijing’s self-conceptualized period of “strategic opportunity”—the relatively benign period in the first decades of the new millennia when China can grow its power without serious challenge. Chinese strategists have argued that after 2020, the country may face the realities of increased U.S. strategic attention, a militarily resurgent Japan, and the internal necessity to upgrade China’s own development model.
Unfortunately for Beijing, the period of strategic opportunity appears to be ending earlier than originally estimated. Washington’s foreign policy establishment, once hopeful that Beijing could be worked with to manage tensions under a mutually beneficial consensus, is coming to the realization that China’s core interests irreconcilably undermine those of the United States. Consequently, the United States has upped its game in the region. This is evident through increased U.S. freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea; the lifting of the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam, which struggles to defend its own South China Sea claims against China; Washington’s successful seizure of the diplomatic high ground in defending American interests in the South China Sea; and the revitalization of U.S. alliances and partnerships throughout the region.
Asian countries have also not thrown in the towel on defending their sovereignty interests against Chinese power. The Philippines’ case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague will soon be decided. In that case, the Philippines argues that China’s infamous nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea are contrary to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The process has received wide international support, and the ruling is expected to favor the Philippines. In the East China Sea, Japan has revamped its efforts to defend its territorial claims from increasing Chinese encroachment. The Japanese Coast Guard recently established a new Senkaku patrol unit with 12 large ships to ward off Chinese vessels. Tokyo is also investing more resources in its military, strengthening its navy and amphibious forces, purchasing advanced fighter jets, and enhancing missile defenses.
Most troubling to Beijing, Taiwan’s new President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has refused to endorse the fragile and vague political arrangement known as the 1992 consensus, which was endorsed by her Kuomintang (KMT) predecessor Ma Ying-jeou. This arrangement was based on the understanding that there is only one China, even while disagreeing on what China is. China’s threats to throw cross-strait relations into a freeze have not coerced the new government into meeting Beijing’s bottom line, and are unlikely to succeed in doing so in the future. This situation, in combination with an ever-growing sense of Taiwanese identity and wariness of Beijing on the island, means China’s most important peripheral interest will remain beyond its reach for the foreseeable future.
It is hard to imagine how China’s leaders can change such unfavorable circumstances along its periphery all at once, even as the country deals with internal struggles such as its stalling economic transformation and the unwanted effects of the disruptive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) discipline drive (which has investigated4,309 officials in April alone). Nevertheless, it seems likely that the Xi Jinping government will choose to muddle through on all fronts, as it seeks to grasp its perceived opportunities before the period of “strategic opportunity” fully comes to a close.
(This article originally appeared in The Diplomat)