China released its defense white paper yesterday (published every two years), and poutingly complained that the United States, in pursuing the “pivot,” is actually making things tenser in Asia. In fact, asserts Beijing, Washington is trying to strengthen its alliances, which a Defense Ministry spokesman says is “in line with the calling of the times.” There can only be dark days ahead for Asia if the U.S. continues in this provocative mode, implies Beijing, and the Chinese are helpfully ready to calm the waters of the Pacific once the Americans realize the folly of their ways.
Those would be the waters, of course, that China has roiled with its civilian maritime agencies and its air force, intimidating neighboring nations over territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, and refusing to rein in private fishing fleets that regularly poach in contested waters. This is also the China that set up a prefecture-level city government and military garrison with jurisdiction over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims in its entirety (or maybe just claims the islands, which sit astride the key waterways; no one seems quite sure). And the China that refuses to agree to multilateral negotiations on overlapping claims that have put it at odds with Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia. As well as the China that continues to build up its missile systems across the Taiwan Strait, add submarine and anti-ship forces, and develop advanced fighters. And that doesn’t even take into account cyberhacking, which has penetrated networks in Japan, South Korea, and undoubtedly other Asian countries.
We all know the response to the charges above: that China hasn’t attacked any country since the 1979 border war with Vietnam, that it has not unilaterally changed any borders, and that it is a full member of numerous multilateral organizations, such as the East Asian Summit, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, and the like. It is also a generous provider of no-strings aid throughout Asia, particularly in the Mekong region and Oceania (the only expectations being diplomatic support, of course).
Yet the stronger China gets, the more its positions have hardened and its actions have become belligerent. It has pressured smaller nations over the island disputes, and its relentless double-digit growth in military spending the past 20 years has made it the most feared nation in Asia. Its neighbors are worried, and are increasingly willing to say so publically. Furthermore, Beijing has shown little interest in providing public goods commensurate with its political influence, military strength, and economic role. It is learning how to project power far from its shores at the same time its military analysts talk about securing the first or second island chains that provide access into the Pacific. Its behavior has prevented it from forming any close relations with its neighbors (other than client states such as North Korea or Cambodia).
But maybe one does not have to respond to Beijing’s criticism of America with a tit-for-tat countercharge of China’s own destabilizing actions. Simply on the face of it, Beijing’s claim that America is “destabilizing” the Asia-Pacific is patent nonsense. The truth is, the United States has spent decades ensuring freedom of navigation, containing the Soviet Union, and basing hundreds of thousands of troops in the region to deter conflict and keep North Korea in its box. China has benefited from U.S. involvement as much as any nation, and just as much as America itself. And, far from making things more tense in Asia, if anything, these days the Obama administration has been too chary of getting involved in the region’s disputes, thereby helping shift perceptions of the balance of power there and raising fears about the future. That Beijing would trot out such ridiculous nostrums makes this document a goldmine of information about its frustration at not having an unfettered hand in the region, its sense of insecurity, and its desire to marginalize U.S. power in Asia. That should serve as a warning to U.S. policymakers who think that they won’t face an increasing challenge from China in the years ahead.