With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive posturing in regional politics, Beijing appears to have moved beyond its old doctrine of‘hide-your-strength-bide-your-time’ and gradually trying to dominate the region. China has a comprehensive plan that encompasses economic,strategic and cultural strategies, to raise its stature in the globaland regional politics. Along with other strategies, Beijing’s maritime plans and behaviour in the recent past have been an issue ofdiscomfort in the Asia-Pacific.
Similarly, its increasingly non-compromising posture in the South China Sea (SCS) is also cited asits plan to dominate the regional waters. China has been trying to thwart any attempt by the regional countries or the US to have a code of conduct for the SCS; in fact it has created over eight new artificial islands in the region over in the past one-and-a-half years. It is said to be a clear violation of the Declaration of Conduct (DoC), which was agreed to by China in November 2002. Apart from aggressiveness on security and strategic issues, Beijing has also been trying to inculcate its maritime charm by talking about the Maritime Silk Route (MSR) initiative. In a way, it part of Beijing’s efforts to neutralise the perception of its assertiveness in the regional waters by coating it with economic opportunities.
Chinese assertiveness is apparently meant to be part of its contest with the US for the regional and global dominance. Hardliner Xi received a setback when his proposal of a new model of ‘Great-Power Relations’ between the US and China in 2013 was not given enough credence or hearing in Washington. Xi wants to demonstrate its growing all-round prowess to Washington, and many observers feel that China’s growing maritime assertiveness might be part of this strategy. China feels that a relatively weak Washington is entangled in West Asia, and its ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy has been largely assigned to its allies in the Asia Pacific. Beijing therefore thinks it an opportune time to extend the limits of its influence and extents of its dominance in regional politics. This would put pressure on the US to accept the Chinese proposal.
However, it is quite evident that the US is not willing to concede its primacy in the region. In October 2015, a US warship challenged the territorial limits around China’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago; and in November 2015, two US B-52 bombers flew over the new Chinese-built artificial islands in the SCS. The US claims that it is part of right to freedom of navigation and over-flight in the region.
Beijing might have its own justification for its contestation with the US but its behaviour is inconsistent with its stated neighbourhood policy that seeks peace and stability in the region and promotes agradual acceptance of China’s place in regional politics. Recent Chinese maritime moves have made neighbouring countries across the broad restless; and most of them have been looking to devise their counter-strategies. These countries, with the interesting exception of South Korea, have not been attracted to the MSR or other Chinese economic opportunities. They have been looking for alternate optionsand equations. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have expressed their concerns more emphatically over the recent Chinese behaviour. It is interesting to note that rather than being scared of an increasingly nationalist and aggressive Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the Southeast Asian countries and even India and Australia are rather ready to work with Tokyo.
Bilaterally and multilaterally these countries have been trying to contest China. During Xi’s November 2015 visit to Vietnam, Hanoi raised the issue of peace and stability in the region; and in late-November 2015, top military officials of Australia and China had “direct and blunt” encounters over the SCS issue. During the 22 November 2015 East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, despite China’s open stand that delegates should not deliberate about the SCS,the issue was centre stage and five of thirty-one paragraphs in the chairman’s statement were devoted to it. Furthermore, it was underlined that a binding code of conduct must be evolved and implemented for the SCS. At the 17 November 2015 APEC Forum – a general platform to talk about trade and commerce – in Manila, the issue was quite central in the discussions, and US President Barak Obama assured regional countries that Washington would be doing more for the turbulent waters of the SCS.
China’s growing maritime assertiveness in recent years appears to be becoming counter-productive for Beijing, as it has led to an evolution of a broader network to deal with China. Beijing needs to review its maritime strategy in the region as it has strengthened the US position in the region, and the regional countries, despite several discordant links amongst themselves, seem to have no option but to come together. The more China tries to be assertive, the more realistic it would be for other countries to put aside their differences and oppose such moves. Beijing also needs to rethink its strategy, as there are speculations that the recent slump in its rate of economic growth is also going to continue and that it may weaken Chinese economic attractiveness for these countries. The next Chinese moves would be critical in the coming months and it would decide the course and contours of the Asia-Pacific in a very fundamental way.