Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Rise of the Red Panda: Chinese Regional Expansion

A satellite image of Woody Island, part of the disputed Paracel chain in the South China Sea, is pictured left, on February 3, 2015, and right, on February 14.

Two satellite images of Woody Island: the left on February 3, 2015, and right, on February 14, 2016. Image from

Roughly four plus years ago, I wrote a piece debating whether China is a status quo or revisionist power. Then, I was unsure where to place China along the status quo-revisionist spectrum, arguing that it was probably too early in China's ascent to make any kind of definitive conclusion about Chinese goals and ambitions. Times have changed, however: the geopolitical landscape in Asia looks different now in 2016 than it did in late 2011. And as a result, it's an appropriate moment to offer an updated assessment of China.

In brief, in my view, it's fairly clear that China is an expansionist rising power. I think it's high time to accept this reality. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has transitioned from a sleeping giant to a regional revisionist power. At bottom, spurred by a wave of ambitious new leaders, including Xi, a spike in Chinese nationalism, and favorable regional geopolitical trends, Beijing is pursuing changes to the regional order that attempt to establish China's dominance and protect its national interests throughout Asia. My guess is it's unlikely that concessions from the US or its regional friends will dissuade China from continuing its aim of regional hegemony. 

Let's look at the facts. In the last few years, it has placed an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea, ruffling the feathers of Japan and South Korea. It has aggressively approached Vietnamese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea (SCS), ramming them and spraying them with water canons. China has created what the US military has called "sand castles," or artificially constructed mini-islands, in the SCS and placed lighthouses and airstrips on these features. It has leveraged its influence over allies Cambodia and Laos to engender divisions within ASEAN, thereby neutering the bloc's ability to address the knotty territorial/waterway issues in the SCS. China has refused multilateral attempts to broker a solution to any and all disputes in the either seas--even going so far as to avoid cooperating with the ongoing international court proceedings investigating the validity of China's claims in the SCS, or what China calls its "nine-dash line." More troubling, arguably, China has begun to create a parallel order in Asia--one in which it is the primary leader--centered around trade, finance, and a raft of new regional institutions and agreements. 

All of this is evidence that China is carving out its own place in the world, whether the US likes it or not. For years liberal IR scholars have argued that China has risen within the extant US-led world order, that China knows and values this, and that, as a result, Beijing won't rock the boat. Not so fast, though. Yes, liberals are correct that China has accrued enormous benefits by engaging with and through a host of liberal international political and economic tools and mechanisms, but that doesn't mean that China is content to remain a second class citizen of the world--which is exactly what it would be if it continues to grant primacy to the post-WWII order created by the US and its allies. China wants a world in which it calls the shots, telling others the way the world should look and operate, rather than one in which the US and its buddies lecture China on the ways of the world. 

There's no sign that China is slowing its moves toward regional hegemony. Indeed, the latest news pertaining to the SCS, according to Taiwan's defense ministry, indicate that China has placed long-range surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, a contested area in the Paracel island chain in the SCS. This act raises the stakes in the SCS. It further militarizes the area. It gives China an improved capacity to enforce its claims to the entire SCS.  It also raises the specter that, if not punished or condemned, China will likely replicate this maneuver on other contested islands.

It could be argued that China is simply responding to recent American freedom of navigation operations in the SCS--America's attempt to show Beijing that it's willing to keep the seas free and open and that it is still interested in maintaining its naval dominance in Asia. In narrow sense, perhaps. But when we view these events from a bigger picture, we realize there's more than that going on here.

First, there's a rising sense of confidence among Chinese leaders and citizens. They see their nation on the precipice of great power status and are ready to seize the mantle. They are reluctant to take a back seat to the US, or any other country, on the regional and world stages. This trend has been particularly apparent since the 2008 financial crisis, which the Chinese weathered much better than their counterparts in the West. From their perspective, Western institutions and systems aren't as successful or durable as as the US and Europeans have long claimed and aren't any better, and are probably worse, than those structures in place within China. And America's costly wars of the 2000s, which endure to today, demonstrates that US leaders are only foolishly driving America into the ground. If anything, then, according to Beijing, China's approach to politics, economics and foreign relations have been validated by world events.

A second major factor is the geopolitical dynamics at work. China is expanding its interests in line with its ever-growing material capabilities. This is a simple dictum introduced 70 years ago by Hans Morgenthau, in his seminal work Politics Among Nations. Put simply, as China becomes more powerful in economic and military might, it will define its national interests more broadly, moving from an inward-looking nation focused strictly on internal cohesion and stability to a power that seeks to dominate its backyard. Enhanced state power gives countries greater foreign freedom and flexibility and enables leaders and their citizens to think about their country in more ambitious terms. The evidence seems to support this proposition.

Additionally, China senses opportunities to expand regionally--both in terms of military expansion and political influence over its neighbors. In short, China recognizes a power vacuum in Asia and is very willing to exploit it. Beijing is well aware that the US is distracted and bogged down in the Middle East, fighting never-ending wars against despots and terrorists. And it doesn't look like the US will be able to turn its full attention to Asia anytime soon--either under Obama or his successor. Plus, the American media, with its constant over-hyping of Islamic terrorism as an existential threat to the US and its way of life, won't let the Obama administration, or any near-term future White House occupant, turn to Asia. China, in all likelihood, read this situation for what it is once the Asia hands, like Hillary Clinton, Tom Donilon and Tim Giethner, left the administration and were replaced by officials who were interested in and carried portfolios on Europe and the Middle East. I mean, just compare the travel itineraries of Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton.

Plus, Obama's rebalance, or pivot, to Asia, as I feared, has probably come too late. Face it, this is something that needed to get underway about a decade or so earlier--one of the many products of the lack of strategic thinking in US foreign policy over the last 25 years. For instance, the US Navy will complete its shift in assets to Asia by 2020; by then, the SCS could, in effect, as John Mearsheimer has suggested, be a Chinese lake. And if so, from there China could embark on heading toward the Indian Ocean and beyond, and also begin in earnest plans to squeeze the movement of the US into and throughout the region. 

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