China's assertiveness must be seen in the context of Asia's contesting nationalisms

David Lampton considers the deteriorating Sino-US relations and how each should respond

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 4:08am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 August, 2014, 4:08am

The year 2010 is a year to remember in US-China relations. Since that time, the very strategic foundation of the relationship has undergone incremental erosion. The vocabulary employed to describe approaches to managing bilateral ties has changed, captured by the decreasing use of an "engagement" vocabulary, a passing transit through the concept of "hedging", on to "deterrence", and now one hears voices using the vocabulary of coercive diplomacy in both societies.

Some in the China studies field have argued against the proposition that China's regional policy has become more assertive. I am not among them. Unfortunately, the hackneyed characterisations of Chinese behaviour as "salami slicing" or "nibbling" have an element of truth - Beijing is attempting to peel back the maritime status quo ante in the East and South China seas, one thin layer at a time. All this is not to say Japan and others have not taken ill-advised actions that have provoked Beijing.

All this gives rise to several questions, including this: why (or to what extent) has Beijing changed a successful policy that for more than three decades facilitated a dramatic increase in Chinese comprehensive national power without engendering a proportionate rise in the anxieties of others?

Serious research is needed on this and other questions. Instead, I wish to make three points as we try to work our way through this precarious period. First, the problem we confront in Asia is not simply assertive Chinese nationalism. What we face in Asia is conflicting, assertive nationalisms.

Second, we should not simply frame the issue as, "How should the United States respond to Beijing?" Rather, the regional and international systems have reacted, and are reacting, and this has already imposed meaningful costs on China. An important question for Beijing is how long does it wish to bear these, and possibly other, growing costs?

Finally, Washington should not take actions that are to everyone's detriment, not least the interests of our friends in the region, nor should we fail to consider the lessons of the cold war in developing responses.

Asia is a region in which levels of trust across national boundaries are low, and memories are long. It is a region full of pluralistic societies and polities, many of which seek to garner domestic support by appealing to nationalistic aspirations - this is as true for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as it is for Chinese leaders and others in the region. As a consequence, while it is certainly true that assertive Chinese nationalism is a problem, the larger challenge is the interacting nationalisms driving many polities and societies in Asia to be assertive. Washington needs to be careful that in opposing the assertive nationalism of China we are not giving free rein to others.

With respect to the second point, China's relations with its periphery have suffered a net decline over the last five years: Beijing's "box score" for bilateral relations shows overall losses, with minuses in Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, India, Singapore and Japan, with South Korea being a complex case, but not a plus for Beijing.

Relations with Russia could be counted a plus, but I continue to be impressed by the structural weakness of that relationship.

If one sets this net loss against a very heavy and challenging domestic agenda in China, where President Xi Jinping is seeking to move forward on the third plenum's broad economic and social agenda, attack powerful networks of corruption and move onto yet another area of change in the upcoming fourth plenum in October, it is hard to see how China's external circumstances mesh with the need for internal focus.

Addressing the third set of issues (appropriate and effective responses), there are no easy answers.

Nonetheless, this is clear: one should not seek to turn existing zones of relative calm and stability into additional problems for Beijing, in the misguided notion that whatever multiplies Beijing's problems must be in our interests. To seek to fish in the troubled waters of the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong, or the Sunflower movement in Taiwan, would provoke the worst possible response from Beijing and is not something that those movements would or should want, making them seem to be agents of outsiders rather than the home-grown movements they are.

To summarise, if Beijing wants to improve relations with Washington, the easiest, quickest, and most mutually beneficial path is to improve relations with its own periphery. For its part, a portion of the US management approach needs to be constructively shaping the behaviour of US allies and friends and recognising that Asia's problem is not simply China, but rather the conflicting nationalisms and insecurities of many countries in the region.

David M. Lampton is a professor and director of China studies at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies. Distributed by Pacific Forum CSIS. Copyright: Pacific News Service