What is China's Grand Strategy?
What connects China's push to internationalize the RMB, set up new global institutions to compete with the post-WWII order set up by the United States, and China's militarization of the South China Sea? I've revisited an old discussion in the forms debating the death of the American superpower, and wondering how it might be achieving by a rising China.
I continue to be mystified by the strategy behind China's foreign policy, if, indeed, there is a strategy. Before Xi Jinping's rise to power and China's more aggressive stance in the SCS, the US was becoming increasingly irrelevant to the booming Asian economies (and with the financial crisis, looked to be moving towards an inevitable long-term decline into has-been status), and a confident China appeared to be assuming the mantle of regional hegemon, providing a "new" development model for the emerging markets–if one considers Japan's and the Asian Tigers' investment-led growth model to be new. Regardless, China's resilience in the face of the global economic downturn raised many questions about the Western development model, and China appeared to be providing a new way. Together with growing investments in commodity-exporting economies, China appeared to be on the golden path.
The South China Sea
Is it a case of Icarus flying too close to the sun, or perhaps simply boiling the water too quickly for the frog to acclimate? China's aggressive push in the SCS alienated Vietnam, which has been dominated by the pro-China Vietnamese Communist Party, and opened the way for a thaw in relations with the US. China's excessive claims and mendacious tactics in the Scarborough Shoal alienated the Philippines, and caused the Philippines to reorient once again back towards the United States–just two decades after unceremoniously ejecting the US from Subic Bay. China has made tremendous progress in building up military facilities in the region, but what happens when the other claimants follow suit? Does it benefit China strategically to have static bases, so far from its own shores, surrounded by hostile powers?
Japan and Australia
Meanwhile, Japan appears to be increasingly militarizing in the face of China's claims against the Senkaku islands, and Japan and Australia, America's anchor allies in the region, are developing their own new defense relationships:
SYDNEY–Foreign and defense ministers of Japan and Australia agreed here to swiftly sign a pact to make cooperation between their armed forces easier.
Full agreement will be sought when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull visits Japan next month. By signing the treaty, Japan will essentially become a "quasi-ally" with Australia, allowing the Self-Defense Forces to significantly strengthen their ties with the Australian armed forces in various fields, including unit management and equipment. Both Japan and Australia are allied with the United States.
The pact will be Japan's first mutual status of forces agreement, which legally defines how a foreign military force operating in another country is handled. This will determine what local laws the troops will be exempt from, including the handling of accidents and crimes, the movement of military vehicles on public roads and frequencies of radio bandwidths to use during exercises.
Such an agreement will allow for the two armed forces to hold joint exercises and dispatch units for disaster relief purposes. The two nations will be able to conduct joint drills on Japanese territory without the bother of implementing special procedures.
These two countries are heavily dependent on trade with China, so outright hostility to China is not part of the design of these new ties. Still, given all of the other conflicts above, this cannot be considered a positive development for China.
The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue
Perhaps more worryingly for China's long-term aims in the region is the repositioning of India towards the US sphere of influence. Long hostile to the US from its days as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (i.e. a proxy of the USSR), starting under President Bush and continuing through the election of Narendra Modi, India has steadily been improving diplomatic and military ties with the US. While the so-called Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as a formal intiative, has not yet succeeded, the building blocks are coming into place. The US has signed an agreement with Australia to base marines in northern Australia. As above, Australia and Japan are steadily strengthening relations, and Australia's tender for new submarines may provide an avenue for further deepening of military and industrial cooperation. Japan, the US, and India are more closely cooperating in naval exercises–and Australia wants in. In parallel, India and Japan are deepening economic and defense relations, while Japan is independently strengthening ties with Vietnam and the Philippines. Ironically, it is China that makes this kind of self-reinforcing network of allies possible, as other than the security question posed by China, these countries would likely not have a shared strategic vision for Asia.
American's Pivot to Asia, or China's Self-Encirclement?
Is encirclement becoming a self-fulfilling phenomenon? Given China's apparent disinterest in cultivating warm diplomatic ties with its neighbors, this appears to be China's preferred outcome. While I can see the benefits to strengthening CCP rule, by cultivating a seige-mentality among the Chinese citizenry, it's unclear how this will benefit China strategically in the long-run. It certainly reinforces the party line that China can only depend on itself, but it does so in part by precluding the possibility of cooperation with others.
Against all of this, China appears to have scored a major coup by establishing strong relations with Russia. With a series of gargantuan gas deals signed between the two countries, China both further diversifies its energy sources and bolsters a friendly government. But beyond marginal deals such as the recently announced purchase of Su-35 multirole fighter jets, it's unclear what Russia can provide to China beyond solidarity in the UN, given its own ailing economy, diplomatic isolation in the West, and distraction in Ukraine and the Syrian quagmire.
The AIIB and the One Belt, One Road Initiative
Meanwhile, China appears to be flexing its economic muscles with the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance its infrastructure invesment push into south and central Asia, known as the One Belt, One Road initiative (the name probably makes more sense in Chinese). Over 50 countries, including close American allies, rushed to join the AIIB, causing some nervousness in Washington and Tokyo that the AIIB would rival, or perhaps eclipse, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. But after some initial controversy, reason prevailed. If the AIIB ultimately operates according to best-in-class practices as China advertised, then doesn't the AIIB serve to further entrench Western standards, even if the bank is effectively controlled by China? It is still a bank, and it must still invest for profit. Should China attempt to use the AIIB to purchase influence in the recipient countries, how long will the other AIIB co-founders accord the AIIB the respect it needs to become a world-class, first-tier institution? It is therefore unlikely that the AIIB will become the political tool that the Western world fears–but at the same time, it's unclear how setting up the AIIB significantly advances Chinese influence any more than the World Bank increases American power, or the ADB expands Japanese influence.
An Old Type of Great Power Relations, or China's Pivot to Asia
I would prefer that China and the US find a way to reconcile and establish warm, friendly relations to ensure stability and prosperity in the 21st century. But assuming that's not possible, or not desirable to the Chinese leadership, let's think about an alternative. Assuming that China's leadership is intent on further defining itself in opposition to the US-led world order, and does not intend to repair relations with the US, then the most obvious route for China would be to imitate the USSR and build its own alliance system to counter the US-led system. China has few allies of significance, with the main examples of Pakistan and North Korea often cited, and its relationship with Russia, despite attempts to upgrade the status of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, cannot yet be called an alliance. But China should be working towards creating its own Warsaw Pact. China's support for Iran will not be enough, considering India's good relations with that country. Instead, China should perform its own Pivot to Asia.
I would propose, perhaps controvertially, that China's strategy should include driving a wedge into the US footprint in Asia by offering concessions to Vietnam and the Philippines over the Spratley Islands in return for concrete pledges of neutrality in the SCS. Furthermore, China has an opportunity to draw [the often anti-American] South Korea out of the US sphere of influence by brokering peace between it and North Korea, even if this violates China's superficial neutrality towards the diplomatic affairs of other countries.
As long as Japan anchors the US presence in Asia, it will be difficult for China to protect its flank from the United States. To ensure China secures the "first island chain" for itself, it must achieve a detente with Japan. This could include concessions on the Senkakus, or brokering a favorable outcome for Japan in regards to its dispute with Russia over the Kuril islands. While it seems outlandish to contemplate Japan leaving the US sphere of influence in favor of China, one should keep perspective on just how recent the good relations enjoyed by the US and Japan are. Below the surface of the US-Japan alliance is a long-simmering economic tension dating back to the 1970s, and a combination of anti-American Japanese nationalists, anti-American Japanese leftists, and the promoters of anti-American resentment in Okinawa could unite to alter Japanese foreign policy. Japanese attempts to throw off the restraints of Article 9 may, contrary to expectations, also significantly weaken the logic behind the Japan-US military alliance.
With South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and possibly the Philippines on-side, the US would be effectively shut out of East and Southeast Asia. This soft-power approach would have hard-power, strategic implications for the US military posture. It appears unlikely that Xi Jinping will alter his glory-seeking "Chinese Dream" policy, but it remains a distinct possibility for his successor to return to a more subtle, Deng Xiaoping-style policy of laying low and biding time–and letting the natural course of the great Chinese gravitational pull do its work to achieve Asian cohesion, and deny the US an entry.