In two years on the China desk in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, colleagues and I had frequent interactions with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). They were our counterparts out of China’s embassy in Washington, and we had a cordial and productive working relationship. Our job was to help manage the defense relationship between the United States and China, which was characterized by growing cooperation and frequent high-level visits. As representatives of our respective governments, we also communicated on thornier aspects of the relationship.
The PLA members sometimes offered clues to their mindset regarding their neighbors in the region. These hints didn’t come off as malicious, just presumptuous, and manifested mostly in asides and off-the-cuff remarks. Of course Vietnam should defer to its “big brother” and be silent. Yes, we can discuss the South China Sea, but the other countries’ claims are a joke. You could feel the frustration coming from our PLA counterparts when we pushed on any number of points. Their response, with varying levels of exasperation —“China is a big country. X is a small country. What more is there to say?” China does not see its neighbors as peers. This thinking is the result of thousands of years of experience and its position as the Middle Kingdom. How does this square with modern concepts of international law and dispute settlement?
“If the Law of the Sea is not observed in the China seas today, it will be in jeopardy in the Arctic, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere tomorrow. In order to keep the risk of conflict contained, we must defend the Law and defend ourselves with the Law.” When Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s minister of defense, spoke these words at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, he crystalized the threat posed by developments in the South China Sea in recent years. He also prodded audience members to consider what comes next.
As well they should, for if China sees the last century as a historical aberration now giving way to a return to its rightful role in Asia and beyond, this process will not stop with the South China Sea. Despite Admiral Sun Jianguo’s assertions of improved trust among China and Southeast Asian nations, China’s land reclamation efforts, its mobilization of civilian and military maritime assets, and its nudging of neighbors further and further back have certainly had the opposite effect.
For the last century, China has underperformed. Its own national narrative fixates on a hundred years of humiliation and perpetuates resentment over its treatment at the hand of outside powers — in past years, the country marked an official “National Humiliation Day.” While that commemoration is now folded into the annual National Defense Education Day in September, Beijing’s leaders explain their policies using this narrative and the concept of national rejuvenation, or a return to China’s rightful place in the world.
This rejuvenation is much more than a useful narrative. China has achieved one of the great humanitarian successes in history following economic reforms begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. “Rapid economic and social development” resulted, according to the World Bank, and “GDP growth has averaged nearly 10 percent a year — the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history — and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.”
Massive growth presents challenges of its own, but China argues that this progress should earn them a bigger seat at the table. During President Xi’s visit to Washington, DC last September, President Obama reiterated that “the United States welcomes the rise of a China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs.” But when established international institutions are slow to reform and fail to reflect the makeup of the present world order, China and other countries are incentivized to go their own way. China’s establishment of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) was a response to the limitations it observes in the current system and targeted a void in the region’s development — its $8 trillion infrastructure investment gap. Clumsy and ultimately ineffective attempts to scuttle the AIIB neither aligned with the welcoming tone of Obama’s remarks nor reflected an appreciation for inevitable change that will result from China’s growing strength and influence.
China’s growth is a net positive for many hundreds of millions of people both in and outside the country. But while that growth can be a rising tide for the region and the world, components of the accompanying rejuvenation strategy are undeniably zero-sum. This isn’t theoretical. As was on the minds of Shangri-la participants, in the coming weeks we’ll see a very conspicuous example of China’s approach to international dispute settlement when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rules on the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea. The case, brought by the Philippines, concerns the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and watchers expect the outcome to favor the Philippines. China has officially refused to participate in the arbitration, instead dismissing the process and the court’s jurisdiction. Last week, with the ruling imminent, China called on the Philippines’ new president-elect Rodrigo Duterte to drop the case altogether in favor of bilateral negotiations. All the while China has been cobbling together a group of countries that support its position, including Russia, the Gambia, Qatar, and Poland, according to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. China has courted Southeast Asian nations, too, though when China’s official news agency Xinhua announced a “four-point consensus” on disputes in the South China Sea with Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos, the other countries backtracked.
The past decade in the South China Sea (whether conceptualized in China as such or not) can also be seen as a giant experiment — a test of the international system. We should consider what lessons China takes from its experience. First, you are strongest when you change the facts on the ground (or on the seas). The map of the South China Sea is physically different now due to China’s extensive reclamation efforts. Other claimants are building, too, but the scale of their construction is miniscule in comparison. Second, you must be willing to lose in other areas in order to accomplish priority goals. China calculates that whatever punitive measures coming its way (if any) are tolerable in comparison to the value it attaches to its South China Sea claims. Third, being the number one trading partner, by far, with neighboring countries provides for significant leverage. And fourth, the international community may organize and may speak out with one voice, but then the years pass and actions, or lack thereof, speak louder than words.
A consideration of these lessons is in order when we contemplate, as France’s defense minister advised, what might come next. Though his statements apply to the international legal system writ large, China’s actions were clearly the focus. China is not rushed. It is deliberate. As it gains strength and capability, and as its interests expand, it has pushed outward. China has core interests, of which the South China Sea is one, but so are Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. It has been describing them as such for many years. Observing the South China Sea, we see forward motion from China, permitted by the current international system. Why stop when no one is stopping you?
Shannon Hayden is Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She previously worked in the Office of the Secretary of Defense on China and U.S. military force posture in the Asia-Pacific and in Singapore as a consultant. She is from Marietta, Georgia. @shannonkhayden