China faces the new realities of US interference in its own backyard
Deng Yuwen and Jonathan Sullivan say Beijing's reaction will shape how conflict may be resolved
Barack Obama used his recent Westpoint military academy address to outline his foreign policy for the remaining term of his presidency and set out the principles for American global leadership in the longer term. He didn't say much about China directly - invoking the seriousness of cyberattacks, but not naming China as a major perpetrator. He mentioned the South China Sea, but only to say that the US supports Southeast Asian nations in their attempts to negotiate disputes according to international law.
Despite this apparently low-key approach to China, analysts in Beijing found yet more cause for concern in the speech, the latest in a series of ill tidings. First, the US bottom line is that it intends to maintain its position as the great global power, "the one indispensable nation", for the remainder of the 21st century.
Second, while military power remains the backbone of US leadership, Washington will also cooperate with its allies to attain its strategic goals.
Third, the US will use any means within law to force China to respect international norms of access in the South China Sea, with the implication that if, by failing to do so, China threatens US allies, Washington would use force to teach Beijing a lesson. At last, Uncle Sam has revealed his mean streak.
Analysts in Beijing see storm clouds gathering over Sino-US relations. Last summer, President Xi Jinping put the idea of a new model of great power relations to Obama as a potential modus vivendi. In the long term, Beijing wants Washington to accept that East Asia is China's special sphere of influence and to refrain from intervening against China's interests in its own backyard. Beijing argues that this is the extent of what it wants in global affairs: American hegemony is tolerable as long as the US respects China's position in Asia.
China wants the same degree of stability in bilateral relations with the US as it has been able to establish with Russia. But achieving this will require greater US accommodation of Chinese foreign policy behaviour in support of its core interests, and removing support from American allies who actively go against them. These are formidable obstacles.
In fact, where China hoped the US would leverage its influence over its allies to support China's claims, it has done the opposite, strengthening alliances with Japan and the Philippines. The idea that the US actively opposes Beijing's legitimate pursuit of security and sovereignty interests in surrounding maritime areas is a source of enormous frustration.
Many Chinese analysts interpreted Obama's recent Asia trip to mean that Washington's former policy of "engagement plus containment" has reverted to simple containment and that the US still has the stomach for a certain degree of conflict with China in the Asia-Pacific region.
When Obama championed the notion of "rebalancing", Beijing interpreted it to mean balancing Chinese power. Yet, as the talk of rebalancing exceeded discernible action, some Chinese analysts began to doubt Obama's commitment.
When Russian forces rolled into Ukraine, they breathed a collective sigh of relief, believing Europe would once again become a point of strategic emphasis. Now they realise they were wrong.
In the weeks leading up to Obama's Asia tour, a series of barbs were directed at several of China's more sensitive issues. Obama openly supported Japan on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute, while Vice-President Joe Biden met veteran figures of the Hong Kong democracy movement at the White House. Statements were also released pressing Beijing on North Korea and territorial disputes with the Philippines.
All of this tells Beijing the US is very clear about which nation represents the greatest long-term threat to US hegemony. The bottom line is that unless Beijing unconditionally submits to American dominance, there is no way the US will allow China to rise without impediment. Instead of the imagined new type of great power relations, Beijing sees an old-fashioned American determination to interfere in its Asian affairs.
In practice, there are many sticks with which the US can beat China, should it choose to do so. But the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, North Korea and territorial disputes in the region are irritants relative to what strategists in Beijing perceive as the aces in the American hand.
First is the possibility of exploiting the conflicts and contradictions in Chinese society, combined with the "weapon" of democracy, to bring about the fall of the Communist Party. Second, using US dominance in global trade to hinder further development of the Chinese economy.
Recent developments suggest China's strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific is about to be constrained. Whether these conditions ultimately lead to conflict will depend on how China reacts, and dealing with Washington's newly enhanced "containment" tactics will be a strong test of the wisdom of Chinese leaders.
Deng Yuwen is a Beijing-based political analyst. Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute