On September 7, a particularly aggressive Chinese fishing boat captain, Zhan Qixiong, rammed his vessel, the Minjinyu 5179, into two Japanese patrol boats after he refused to heed warnings to leave disputed waters in the East China Sea. The incident occurred around the islets and rock outcroppings Japan administers and calls the Senkaku Islands. Beijing and Taiwan know the specks as the Diaoyus and claim them as well.
Tokyo quickly released the crew and their boat but kept Captain Zhan in custody. His detention led to increasingly vituperative statements from Beijing—as well as a series of retaliatory acts, such as the cut off of exports of certain rare-earth minerals to Japan.
The episode has been portrayed as an accidental crisis, but it appears China engineered it. For one thing, Zhan may not be a fisherman but a captain in the Chinese Navy. Beijing appears, moreover, to have flooded the seas around the islands with its craft. In early September, for instance, there were about 160 Chinese fishing boats bobbing in the waters around the Senkakus, even though there is little legal basis to China’s assertion of sovereignty over them.
The weakness of their claims have not prevented the Chinese from pursuing their expansive territorial ambitions. Although they settled land borders with various governments this decade, they have been adamant about claims, many of them essentially baseless, to nearby islands and seas.
For instance, Beijing maintains that its exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea reaches almost all the way to Japan. Tokyo more reasonably believes the zones meet in the middle of that body of water. Similarly, the Chinese central government issues maps showing virtually the entire South China Sea as an internal Chinese lake, with the result that it declares as its own the continental shelves of six other nations: Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
The South China Sea claims predate the founding of the People’s Republic, but the Communist party, unlike the predecessor Kuomintang government, actively enforces them. Beijing from the mid-1970s through the middle of the last decade seized islands and reefs from the Philippines and Vietnam.
In the earlier part of this decade, Beijing was not so obviously aggressive. In 2002, for instance, it signed a code of conduct with ASEAN, the association of nations in Southeast Asia, and thereby agreed to settle competing claims peacefully. Many analysts then argued that the acceptance of the code showed that China was maturing as a power, and American experts marveled at Beijing’s deftness. Marvin Ott of the National War College even called Chinese diplomacy “a thing of beauty.”
Indeed, China’s beautiful diplomacy was effective as it picked off its neighbors one-by-one. Yet the country’s Communists ultimately could not help themselves and reverted to type, going back to rough tactics in the last few years. The Chinese, for instance, have begun to patrol disputed waters aggressively, often using their fishing vessels in a quasi-military role. This increased activity was followed by Beijing’s renewed emphasis on its maritime boundaries. In March, the Chinese government added its South China Sea claims to its list of “core interests,” a term previously reserved for Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang.
Beijing’s more aggressive pursuit of its offshore ambitions occurs at the same time it has stepped up its challenge to America’s exercise of the right of free passage through international waters and airspace. Most notably, in March 2009, China’s aircraft and boats intercepted two unarmed U.S. Navy reconnaissance vessels, the Impeccable in the South China Sea and the Victorious in the Yellow Sea. At the time, a Chinese trawler tried to steal a towed sonar array from the Impeccable, an attempt that constituted a direct attack on the United States. This year, more-over, the People’s Liberation Army loudly challenged the presence of the U.S. Navy in the Yellow Sea, where U.S. and South Korean ships have been practicing defensive maneuvers in the wake of Pyongyang’s torpedo sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean frigate, resulting in the loss of 46 lives. In recent months China has been taking on America and almost every coastal nation in the region at once.
So why did Beijing make the strategic shift from subtle diplomacy to outright confrontation? “China wants to change the rules of the game,” Yuan Peng, a high-level Chinese foreign policy specialist, noted recently. The Communist party had always hoped to do so, but beginning late last year it began to unveil what veteran China watcher Willy Lam calls its “new-look foreign policy.”
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.