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Checking China's Territorial Moves

Authors: Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
Interviewer(s): Robert McMahon, Editor
October 21, 2010

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A growing number of territorial disputes between China and its neighbors has fed concerns that Beijing has abandoned its "peaceful rise" for a more aggressive stance. The incidents range from a September altercation between a Chinese fishing boat and a Japanese Coast Guard ship near the disputed Senkaku Islands to Chinese activities in the South China Sea and dam building on the upper Mekong.

Four CFR experts answer the question: How should Washington respond to China's new assertiveness in its near abroad? Elizabeth Economy says the United States has shown proper resolve and will need to consistently back its allies to ensure security in the South and East China seas. Sheila Smith, writing from Tokyo, says the United States and Japan should convey to Beijing a "strong sense of common strategic purpose." Joshua Kurlantzick says Washington should let Southeast Asian states take the lead on territorial matters because of their added leverage with China and because that could limit direct U.S.-Chinese confrontations. Also important, says Scott Snyder, is for Washington to be prepared to cooperate with China in areas of mutual interest, such as reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Chalk one up for the United States. The take-away from the recent diplomatic fracas in the South China Sea is that Washington finally has its China strategy about right: Stand up for U.S. interests, work with America's allies or partners, and continue to engage with Beijing. In that order.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have asserted the United States' commitment to freedom of navigation and to establishing rules of the road for maritime safety. They worked with others in the region to bring pressure to bear on China. And now they're engaging with Beijing. Just last week, China's General Liang Guanglie extended an invitation to Gates to visit Beijing early next year, thereby resuming the senior-most military-to-military relations that Beijing had frozen since late January.

Such a well-considered and executed policy is far from simple. It required a level of resolve that the United States has not often demonstrated in its relations with China. And now, the United States will have to maintain that same consistency in order to bring about real security in the South--and East--China Seas.

The United States needs to hold China accountable for each and every violation of collision regulations or law of the sea infractions.

Chinese assertiveness in the region is not new. Territorial disputes--sometimes escalating into violence--have been ongoing for decades between China and other claimants, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. The United States has had its own run-ins with Chinese naval and fishing vessels. Until now, however, the U.S. response has been inconsistent--sometimes raising Chinese infractions publicly while other times largely ignoring them. This does not send the right message. The United States needs to hold China accountable for each and every violation of collision regulations or law of the sea infractions. Only by publicly documenting a pattern of behavior will the United States and its allies be able to keep China at the table for serious discussions that will enable a real resolution of the disputes.

China is on notice that it won't be able to steamroll its way through the South and East China seas. And Washington has taken an important step toward reassuring countries in the Asia Pacific that they can still rely upon the United States. Just because the Chinese have taken a step back this time, however, doesn't mean they won't try again. It's up to the United States to let them know that it will be there too, again and again.

Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia

The best way for Washington to respond, in the context of Southeast Asia, is to hide. Not to hide from China, but, in some ways, to hide America's response behind the Southeast Asians, who have serious concerns about China's new assertiveness. After all, it was pressure from Southeast Asian states that, in part, prompted the Obama administration to take a more publicly confrontational line with China regarding the South China Sea. And it was pressure from downstream nations in the Indochina region that, in part, prompted the United States to increase its involvement in the Greater Mekong subregion, where Chinese dams on the upper portion of the Mekong River are seriously hindering downstream livelihoods.

"Hiding" behind the Southeast Asians also will be more effective with China. China expects relatively confrontational behavior from Washington; but over the past decade it has spent significant resources trying to upgrade its ties with Southeast Asia, and warnings from the Southeast Asians do carry real weight in Beijing. Even with the Mekong, complaints by Southeast Asian nations about China's dams finally did lead China to tone down its policy and begin to be more transparent about its strategy in the region. When speaking with Chinese officials, I have always found that it is harder for them to dismiss the concerns of Southeast Asian neighbors than it is for them to dismiss the concerns of Washington.

[For the United States], "hiding" behind the Southeast Asians will be more effective with China. China expects relatively confrontational behavior from Washington, but over the past decade it has spent significant resources trying to upgrade its ties with Southeast Asia.

In addition, Washington should, whenever possible, enlist Southeast Asian leaders like Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Philippine President Benigno Aquino to help make its claims for continued American roles in the region.

Of course, Southeast Asians don't want to have to choose explicitly between Washington and Beijing, but showing China that leaders from countries like Singapore, the Philippines, and Vietnam desire a continued American presence will be highly persuasive. The administration has already started on this track, boosting cooperation with Vietnam and the Philippines and Laos and Cambodia, and touting this cooperation as largely initiated by these Southeast Asian countries. Continuing in this vein will effectively constrain Beijing in the region.

Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Here in Tokyo, the after-effects of the interaction with China over the trawler continue. This past weekend, several thousand protestors gathered in front of the Chinese embassy demanding recognition of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. †The Japanese government is looking for ways to get the bilateral relationship with Beijing back on more constructive track. But it is the alliance dialogue with Washington that is widely recognized as the key to Japan's future interaction with Beijing.

In the coming months, Washington and Tokyo will need to demonstrate that they have taken this Senkaku incident to heart as they consider how best to refine the U.S.-Japan alliance agenda.† A strong sense of common strategic purpose ought to be communicated to Beijing and, more importantly, to the Japanese people.

Yet the United States and Japan should also take advantage of broader opportunities for global and regional collective action in venues that can address some of the functional challenges for both governments in working with Beijing.† Be it currency issues, maritime security in Asia, or diversifying sources for acquiring rare earths and other important materials, Tokyo and Washington have much to gain from broadening the scope of their diplomatic effort for the longer-term project of living with a rising China.

After a year of difficult political relations, the U.S.-Japan alliance seems to be back on track. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's straightforward statement in late September that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty applies to territory under Japanese administration was appreciated in Tokyo and has put some concerns about the U.S. position to rest.

In the coming months, Washington and Tokyo will need to demonstrate that they have taken this Senkaku incident to heart as they consider how best to refine the U.S.-Japan alliance agenda.

Meanwhile, the allies will need to closely observe unfolding political developments in China. Recent demonstrations in China against Japan prompted new speculation about what forces in China are fueling this latest round of antagonism towards Japan.

The appointment Monday of Xi Jinping as deputy chair of the Chinese Central Military Commission was seen in Tokyo as a sign that the Senkaku incident has not had a major impact on the 2012 leadership transition. Some feared that the Senkaku incident had given China's military reason to challenge the civilian leadership in Beijing.

Some China experts here suggest that China's bloggers, as well as the youth that have taken to the streets, could be influenced by China's People's Liberation Army. The question for Washington and Tokyo is how to best navigate what is clearly a turbulent moment in Chinese internal affairs.

Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy

The U.S. response to growing Chinese assertiveness in the region should involve a mix of reassurances to allies as well as China that Washington firmly respects international standards and bilateral agreements. That response should include the following steps:

  • Restore national economic competitiveness and avoid protectionism. Chinese perceptions of American economic weakness in combination with China's own continuing economic growth have contributed to Chinese assumptions that they can take advantage of U.S. political leadership damaged by the global financial crisis. The United States should continue to compete its way to success in the international marketplace and eschew a protectionist approach toward China.
  • Maintain consistency in upholding international standards. Maintaining those standards is in the interest of all parties, including China, since the standards have enabled China's economic growth. China should be expected to play a responsible stakeholder's role in that system, not to bend the rules of the game to its own advantage. The United States should lead and win support from other stakeholders in favor of maintaining the current system and to prevent Chinese exceptionalism.
  • Assure American allies regarding credibility of U.S. commitments. Defense of the national security interests of U.S. allies who share maritime borders with China is crucial to the credibility of U.S. defense commitments against the assertiveness of a rising China. The United States must continue to ensure that it has the capability and the will to enforce those commitments; for instance, the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty commits the United States to defend the Senkakus despite the fact that China and Japan both claim sovereignty over the islands. Both China and America's allies are watching closely for any signs of wavering from the United States.

China's self-assertiveness is increasingly a product of internal pressures from institutional special interests and Chinese nationalism. The United States should be wary of taking actions that unnecessarily feed such sentiments.

  • Be firm. China's assertiveness is increasingly a product of internal pressures from institutional special interests and Chinese nationalism. The United States should be wary of taking actions that unnecessarily feed such sentiments. A clear, firm, and principled stance on an issue-by-issue basis should go far toward blunting the effects of Chinese domestic pressures that feed assertiveness based on nationalism.
  • Be flexible. Where China is able to step up its profile and pursue its own interests without impinging on the legitimate security interests of its neighbors, there is no reason to block a more active Chinese international role in the region or the world. The United States should cooperate with China to maintain regional stability where both countries share mutual interests. This means finding peaceful ways to promote reduction of tensions on the Korean peninsula and to manage maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.

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