Page 2 of 2 China drills its hardpower reserves
By Peter Lee
Instead of trying to wedge the United States away from Japan and toward some kind of accommodation with PRC interests, the PRC is trying to wedge Japan away from the United States by goading/enticing Japan into an independent role that marginalizes the United States.
So we saw the PRC wait for President Obama to leave Asia, then resume its provocations in the Senkakus, while exchanging peaceable mid-level envoys with Japan ...
... and ostentatiously beating up on Vietnam, which Japan has been courting as a member of Prime Minister Abe's anti-PRC
economic and security alliance.
The motive, I would guess, is to compel Japan to abandon its formal lockstep identification with the US pivot leadership in Asia (which, I would posit, Japan has honored in the breach already with its independent-minded footsie with Vietnam, the Philippines and North Korea) and emerge with its own initiative to provide Vietnam with some kind of diplomatic, economic, or military support - or else reveal the hollowness of the assurances it is offering to South East Asian countries to entice them into the Japanese camp.
Once Japan is "off the rez" so to speak, it will be forced to engage in a meaningful way, either through confrontation or negotiation, with the PRC in order to advance its Asia strategy ... and the United States will see its clout diminished and have to deal with the PRC as well to get back into the game.
Given the PRC's traditional focus on avoiding confrontation while it muscles up militarily and diplomatically, this kind of provocation and open escalation would seem to be counter-intuitive.
But I think the PRC has decided that, with the US public commitment to the pivot and encouragement to Japan to implement collective self defense, the US "honest broker" ship has sailed, the real US security role in Asia is backstopping its pivot allies, and the pivot battleline has to be challenged before it became too entrenched.
And it's doing that by demonstrating, in relatively crude terms, that the deterrent strategy that underpins the pivot will not, well, deter the PRC and the PRC will bear-and extract-the economic costs of defying the will and preferences of the US and its Asian allies (and, in the case of Vietnam, its unlucky Asian associates).
As to why the PRC should decide to excite universal fear and loathing at this particular junction, one could spin it positively by saying that it is simply accelerating the birth of a new Asian order with a new balance of powers and the US stripped of its dominating role.
The negative interpretation is probably more persuasive. The PRC sees a hard and ugly decade ahead, with anti-PRC administrations in power in many of the Asian capitals, keystoned by a Hillary Clinton presidency. Best to lance the pivot boil early, before the pivot military bulk-up has completed, and while the relatively conciliatory President Obama is in power and distracted by the idea that he doesn't want to pile a confrontation with China on top of his current problems with Russia.
The PRC's decade of soft power is, prematurely, over, thanks to the success of the pivot in blunting the PRC's drive to dominate the region by virtue of its economic, demographic, and implied military clout. Its relations with its maritime neighbors will, I expect, be increasingly driven by hard power.
I think the PRC has decided to hunker down, and absorb the diplomatic, economic, and social costs of heightened fear and anger, and gamble that it can outmaneuver and outlast the hostility of the pivot nations.
It's an ugly and dangerous gamble, especially since the first, second, and third instinct of everyone involved on the anti-PRC side will be to escalate in order to create a greater feeling of security and also bolster the deterrent narrative that the military capabilities of the US and its pivot partners is what is keeping Asia safe.
Dangerous days, indeed.
Given the unfavorable west Pacific environment, sitting idly by, or trying to ingratiate itself with the Asian democracies and the United States through soft power gambits do not appear to be high on the PRC's list of options.
With its overtly confrontational moves in Qingdao and Shanghai, it appears the PRC is signaling it is prepared to abandon "soft power", give up on the promise of US forbearance, and manage its business in an increasingly hostile regional environment.
And it doesn't seem likely that the PRC is blustering in order to obtain some face-saving concessions or lip service from the US. It is targeting Japan instead of dealing with the US, and challenging the United States to do something effective in support of its ally.
The PRC has always been alert to the need or opportunity to challenge the credibility of the US deterrent and, with the heightened anxiety fostered by Russia's annexation of Crimea, that day has arrived perhaps sooner than anybody wished.
If the PRC intentionally fomented the Ayungin Shoal resupply crisis with the resolve to let the US-PRC relation go south if needed rather than passively let the pivot dynamic play out to its disadvantage, we are definitely in for some tense and unpleasant times - and the costs of maintaining the credibility of the US deterrent might be considerably higher than we prefer.
The PRC appears to be signaling its determination to hunker down and weather the geopolitical storm - which might include a sooner-rather-than-later Taiwan crisis and the need to blame a handy US scapegoat - for years if need be, and pursue the struggle in domestic venues where it holds an advantage.
Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.