Over the past two months, as China’s maritime disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam have escalated, most foreign observers and American officials, though worried, have shown little concern that the conflicts would explode into a full-scale war. After all, for more than three decades China has profited enormously from being part of the global economic system. Its military, though growing, remains far less technologically advanced than American armed forces. And for 30 years, predictions that China one day would try to dominate its region by force have always been proven wrong.
Repeated warnings, with nothing coming of them, created a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario in Washington. In the early 1990s many human-rights activists, including some Democratic politicians, worried that China, ostracized after the Tiananmen crackdown, would lash out. China indeed fired missiles near Taiwan in 1995, but after the Clinton administration sent aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait, Beijing backed down. Instead it launched a charm offensive aimed at its neighbors, boosting aid, investment, and cultural diplomacy across the region. Western foreign policy leaders and China experts have come to assume that China has too much invested in the world today to smash it up. Beijing has “embraced global institutions and their rules and norms. … [That] has helped guide its spectacular economic growth and integration into the world economy,” notes China specialist Wendy Dobson of the University of Toronto, in a typical commentary about Beijing’s role in the world.
But this time the wolf might actually be here. China’s highly nationalistic new leadership may no longer simply accede to the existing international economic and security order; instead it appears to want to change that order, even if that means harming some of China’s most important trade ties. Beijing has started to show its tough-guy stance by, among other things, claiming ownership of islands lying between it and Japan and by enforcing its massive—and utterly ridiculous—claims to almost the entire South China Sea. But unlike 10 years ago, many of Beijing’s angry neighbors are no longer weaklings.
Why has China abandoned its smiling diplomacy, which helped it sign a free-trade agreement with Southeast Asia and gave it enormous influence over Asian governments? After all, by scaring countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam in recent years, China’s leaders have not only damaged trade relationships but also pushed many of these nations into the arms of the U.S.
Amid a war of words and water cannon with Vietnam, President Xi Jinping declared that “in Chinese blood, there is no DNA for aggression or hegemony.” But Xi almost surely approved the recent decision to move an oil rig into waters claimed by both China and Vietnam, and he is hardly backing down. After the anti-China riots in Vietnam, China’s foreign ministry declared that it was Hanoi, not Beijing, that was “distorting the facts [and] conflating right and wrong on the global stage” and implicitly threatened further punishment.
Today’s Chinese leaders, particularly those immediately below Xi, came of age after the Cultural Revolution. Instead of chaos and poverty, they have known an increasingly rich and powerful China. Within the Communist Party, the hawks have applied pressure on top leaders to take tougher and tougher policies. They have a ready audience: Xi himself always had nationalist leanings and came into office vowing to restore the greatness China enjoyed for centuries. And compared with even a decade ago, when most Chinese wanted their leaders to focus on continuing the country’s economic miracle, the ever-richer middle class is interested in foreign relations and staunchly backs a more forceful leadership.
With China’s impressive weathering of the global economic downturn and with the rest of Asia becoming dependent on trade and investment from China, Beijing believes that its territorial rivals cannot, over the long run, afford to fight back. Although China’s actions might lead its neighbors to work with the U.S., many Chinese officials believe rightly or wrongly that Asian nations cannot align with a weakening U.S. forever. What’s more, China has effectively defanged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) so that the organization cannot stand up for members such as the Philippines or Vietnam. Beijing has done so by essentially buying the loyalty of some Asean countries, such as Cambodia. Since the Asean nations operate by consensus and unanimity, China needs only one country on its side to sabotage the group.