In colonial texts about China, the ruling mandarins were often described as inscrutable—cunning, and full of intricate stratagems born of the world’s oldest bureaucracy. The opacity of its Communist leaders helped perpetuate some of those stereotypes, but they are truly nonsense. The Chinese government makes mistakes, even big ones, like its baffling ocean dispute in the South China Sea.
Beginning in about 2013, China has increasingly claimed dominion over wide swaths of land and sea beyond its borders. Where there is insufficient land, like among the Spratly Islands, it is making land, dredging up enough sand around half-sunk reefs to build airstrips and radar towers. And certainly, there is some strategic rationale for doing so. Many of those reefs and atolls are suspected of lying on top of vast oil and gas deposits, and something like half of the world’s commercial maritime traffic flows past them.
From another point of view, though, China’s aggression is incredibly stupid. Since about 1980, the story of the Asian continent has been Beijing’s steadily rising military and economic power. A successful modernization of the world’s largest country will almost inevitably make China the region’s natural hegemon, the same way Germany is the natural hegemon of Europe and the United States is the natural hegemon of (at least) North America. They are the biggest, strongest, richest countries on their continents and thus assume a natural leadership role. That, Mr. Anderson, is the sound of inevitability.
China’s border strategy is no smarter than the Kaiser inserting himself into meaningless colonial disputes. An extra source of natural gas will not significantly affect China’s rise to regional dominance.
Of course, that rise is not completely inevitable. It can be screwed up. Germany had two false starts, both generally viewed as disastrous. France, playing Jimmy Braddock to Bismarck’s Joe Louis, achieved a sort of dominance in the eighteenth century until Napoleon prodded Europe into annihilating him, and his country never really recovered. Russia has spent intermittent decades as a regional leader in Europe and Asia, but never made that leadership attractive enough to prevent its neighbors from hating it. Flush with their newfound power, and prickly as a small man newly rich, these states picked enough minor fights with their neighbors to unite them all in opposition.
China’s border strategy is no smarter than the Kaiser inserting himself into meaningless colonial disputes. An extra source of natural gas will not significantly affect China’s rise to regional dominance. The only thing that could is if Beijing picks enough border quarrels with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and others to push them into an alliance. There’s no reason they should otherwise: these are vastly different regimes and all stand to get rich if China gets rich.
That’s Taiwan’s reasoning, anyway, and Taiwan is led by a political party expressly predicated on invading the mainland and destroying the Chinese government. But the booming Chinese economy has carried along the old Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-Shek and there’s now a dominant community that opposes provoking Beijing because it would be bad for business.
That’s not so different from the European model of dominance, really, in which France doesn’t object to Germany’s power because it’s good for the entire EU (Greece be damned). Likewise, Mexico sees no reason to rally an anti-U.S. alliance, because U.S. dominance is a net positive for Mexico’s security and prosperity. These blocs have been built up gradually, over decades and centuries, but today seem pretty solid.
Before the latest dispute arose over the fake islands in the Spratly islands—or its new offensive military strategy, or its expanded air defense zone, or the Senkakus—China had more or less followed suit. Its doctrine of non-interference abroad protected a legal rationale for tolerating undemocratic regimes, but it also served to reassure its neighbors that, absent an overwhelming threat, Beijing would not send its troops abroad.
Prior to 2013, that strategy had been working. Every day that passes is a day China’s economy grows larger and its stay-at-home military, funded with double-digit percentage increases every year, grows a little stronger. Time is on their side.
Which is why the recent dust-up in the Spratlys is so inexplicable and so incredibly counterproductive. The only thing that could stop China from dominating Asia would be if a hostile, sustainable alliance of Pacific Rim nations emerged. Right now, many of the Pacific Rim nations are on the fence, protected by U.S. military power, politically neutral, and getting rich off China. But America cannot be a long-term guarantor of peace: its resolve will waver, and it is, after all, 8,000 miles away.
The sole motivation for that alliance to form would be exactly what China is doing now: blustering, pawn-grabbing, using its superior local power to claim disproportionately insignificant objectives. That behavior is a godsend to the U.S., which doesn’t have to prod its Asian allies to band together and oppose China. They’ll do it anyway. Control of the Spratly Islands will not determine the future political course of Asia. But grabbing them might.
Andrew L. Peek was a strategic advisor to the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewLPeek