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Trouble in Fishing Waters

China’s military provocations.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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And why last year? Perhaps because Beijing for the first time thought it had the ability to implement its game-changing ambitions. China’s new policy approach came about the same time Jeffrey Bader of the National Security Council publicly suggested, in remarks delivered in November, that no important issue could be solved without the cooperation of the Chinese. Bader, in effect, gave Beijing a veto over American policy. 

Soon after Bader made his ill-advised comments, President Obama went to the Chinese capital for his disastrous summit, returning both humiliated and empty-handed. Since then, China has been especially uncooperative. In short, the ruthlessly pragmatic Chinese believed the Obama administration was weak and pressed what they perceived to be an advantage. 

The president has evidently—and wrongly—believed that relations with China soured because Washington had not tried hard enough to build bridges to Beijing. So as the Chinese acted more belligerently, we became even more friendly. For instance, when the People’s Liberation Army broke off military ties with the Pentagon in the first months of this year, the administration redoubled efforts to reestablish them.

Yet that effort looks futile because China’s flag officers, who are evidently calling the tune in Beijing these days, obviously do not want better relations with the United States. During the 1990s, China’s top brass lost influence in top Communist party organs. Yet they recouped much of their losses in the middle of this decade when they essentially acted as arbiters in a low-level political struggle between supremo Hu Jintao and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, who was trying to linger in the limelight. 

Top officers at this moment appear to be making further political gains as the party prepares for the next transition, when the so-called Fourth Generation leaders give way to the Fifth, scheduled to occur at the end of 2012. So as the civilians squabble, generals and admirals have been exploiting deep splits in the party’s leadership to gain even more prominence in decision-making circles. Tellingly, senior officers now feel free to speak out on matters once considered the province of civilian officials. The remilitarization of Chinese policy is perhaps the most important factor fueling Beijing’s recent aggressiveness in asserting territorial claims—as well as other matters.

Tokyo released Captain Zhan Qixiong on September 24, but that conciliatory gesture only spurred Beijing to issue more demands to the Japanese. As a result, China’s government looks like it is entering a phase where it cannot be placated, appeased, or, to use the term of the moment, “engaged.” 

In July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton executed a partial pivot by telling Beijing that the peaceful settlement of competing claims in the South China Sea was a U.S. “national interest.” That was an important start, but Washington still thinks China’s autocrats can be integrated into a liberal international order they had no hand in creating. 

Recent events demonstrate that the Chinese will not become cooperative members of the global community anytime soon. Beijing’s new militancy means that Washington has fundamentally misunderstood China—and that we now need to adjust our assumptions and our policies fast.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China

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