Last week China escalated, yet again, the conflict over the Senkaku islands. It announced an air-defense identification zone over the islands, and indeed over much of the East China Sea; according to the announcement, aircraft must get permission from China before entering the zone and must obey the rules China has established, or face “defensive emergency measures.”
The latest action is consistent with China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy dating back to 2009–10. The history of that policy is documented in the last two Reports of the U.S-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a standing commission that reports yearly to Congress on the relationship between the United States and China. But essentially it comes down to this: China claims sovereignty over the East and South China Seas, including a number of islands over which other countries have longstanding claims, and in some cases actually control.
China has refused to engage in multilateral talks over its claims or submit them to arbitration in accordance with international law. Instead, the Chinese are using “coercive but non-kinetic” means of asserting their jurisdiction. That means they simply act as if they are sovereign over the disputed areas, flooding them with ships and planes and issuing pronouncements, like the air-defense zone, that only a sovereign has the right to make. The effect is to escalate confrontations until competing claimants are left with two choices: either accede to China’s demands or start a shooting war with a superior military power.
In 2012, China used this tactic to take control over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Both China and the Philippines claimed fishing rights in the waters around the shoal. China established control over the shoal by patrolling it with maritime law-enforcement vessels and eventually roping off the entrance so that Philippine vessels could not operate there. China continues to maintain de facto control over the shoal; there is simply nothing that the Philippines can do about it.
There are three reasons the Chinese government is pursuing this policy. The first is economic and strategic. If the Chinese can control the resources of the western Pacific, they have a hedge against disruption of their supply lines from the rest of the world, in particular their oil imports from the Middle East. The second is historic and national. China views the world vertically, not horizontally. They do not recognize — except insofar as they must — the constraints imposed by a norm-based international system. Instead, China sees the world as one where powerful countries get most of the benefits; China has historically been the Middle Kingdom, and it is now reasserting its perceived right to hegemonic status in East Asia.
The third reason is political. The leaders of the Chinese Communist party rule without the benefit of having been elected, and they are well aware that the absence of democratic consent undermines the legitimacy and therefore the stability of their rule. To reinforce the regime, they have made an implicit deal with their people: In return for continuing in power, they promise a better quality of life at home and a reassertion of Chinese primacy in Asia. As the U.S.-China Commission put it (p. 270):
By promoting a sense of grievance among the Chinese people, and then aggressively asserting China’s claims against its neighbors, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) shifts attention away from the authoritarian nature of its rule and toward its role as the champions of China’s interests in the region.
It is in this context that the changing balance of power in the Pacific should be viewed. The Chinese are engaged in an unprecedented military buildup. They are upgrading their nuclear arsenal; by 2015, they could double the number of nuclear warheads they possess. By 2020 their navy will be substantially larger than America’s; their ships will be highly capable, comprehensively armed with long-range and advanced anti-ship missiles, and concentrated in the western Pacific. They will have a large inventory of conventional ballistic missiles and air- and sea-based cruise missiles capable of striking U.S. assets as far as Guam. They are improving their amphibious capabilities and significantly upgrading their intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. They will have the ability to destroy or severely disrupt America’s space assets in every orbital regime. According to the Defense Science Board, they already have offensive cyber capabilities that can inflict existential damage on America’s critical infrastructure.
In short, China is becoming, if it is not already, a peer military competitor of the United States. It will be, if it is not already, the dominant military power in the Pacific, capable of attacking the United States and its allies simultaneously in the region’s air, sea, land, space, and cyber domains.
Control of the Scarborough shoal and the fishing waters around it is, by itself, not a big deal. But the new air identification zone is a big deal. And it is a very big deal that China has the will, the power, and the motivation to openly threaten nations that the United States is bound by treaty and interest to defend. That could not have happened ten or even five years ago. It means that the equilibrium of Asia is being deranged. We should expect the risk of armed conflict to grow unless and until the United States moves decisively to repair its defenses and reinforce its alliances.
— Jim Talent serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, to which he was appointed by the U.S. Senate in 2012. He has served on the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.