05/14/2014 01:33 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

Crisis in the South China Sea


Last week, a flotilla of Chinese ships carried a massive deepwater oil rig to an area of the South China Sea near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both China and Vietnam. Chinese coast guard vessels used water cannon against Vietnamese ships investigating the rig and Chinese officials complained Vietnamese vessels had rammed Chinese ships working on the rig project endangering the lives of Chinese workers. While there is real danger of this crisis escalating, the longer-term implications of China's behavior are also troubling. With little regard for the territorial claims of its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors or international norms like freedom of navigation in one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, China's behavior is increasingly and unambiguously unilateral and assertive, challenging the existing order and increasing the probability of conflict.

For much of the past two decades, China's foreign policy was geared toward reassurance and building relationships--both within and outside its immediate region--that would prove mutually beneficial for China and its partners. Beijing utilized the slogans of "Peaceful Rise," and "Win-win" to create and reinforce the notion that China's economic and political development would be a benefit to its neighbors and, perhaps more importantly for them, that an expanding China would not be a threat as its capabilities increased and its power grew.

However, since at least 2010 when relations with Japan soured over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Beijing has been increasingly assertive in dealing with its neighbors. The highly controversial and unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea near the disputed islands shocked not only Japan but the United States and South Korea. Various incursions by PLA forces across disputed line of control created a diplomatic row with India last summer. Finally, Chinese vessels have repeatedly caused incidents with the Philippines and Vietnam, encroaching on disputed areas or harassing the vessels of its smaller neighbors. Despite its reassuring rhetoric, China's behavior has been unambiguously aggressive.

Some experts argue that Beijing's policy objectives have not really changed. Even with the strong new leadership of Xi Jinping, whose deft consolidation of power has been compared to Deng Xiaoping, China's vital interests of steady internal economic growth and gradual political development remain consistent. But with China's considerable military modernization over the past decade, its approach to achieving those goals seems to have evolved. While it may indeed have legitimate claims on disputed territories, China's perceived willingness to energetically assert those claims by taking provocative unilateral action and forgoing negotiation has raised fears in neighboring capitals and decreased stability in a vitally important region.

Some attribute this to America's own "Pacific Pivot," which may be interpreted as "containing" China. But with so much criticism over the lack of budgetary support for its security component and the more recent inability to conclude a key regional trade agreement, the so- called Transpacific Partnership (TPP), it requires somewhat of a leap to argue that U.S. policy has provoked reckless behavior in regional allies, precipitating a Chinese response. Nor can China overdo the unfortunate rhetoric and action of Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. While the Yasukumi Shrine presents a persistent reminder of Japan's troubled history in the region, it has been frankly far too easy for Beijing to shift the focus from its own troubling behavior to the rhetoric and (admittedly insensitive) symbolic actions of certain Japanese politicians.

It has long been acknowledged that China's rise will be the central strategic challenge in this century. What is increasingly apparent is that Beijing's choices are likely to be the primary determinants of a future conflict in Asia. This leaves an unfortunate but increasingly stark choice for American leaders: work with regional (and global) allies to deter China, or acquiesce to a rising China and effectively condone its aggressive behavior, particularly toward its smaller neighbors. Justified or not, it seems that Beijing is prepared to unilaterally implement its preferred policies with little concern for the interests, claims (legitimate or otherwise), or fears of its neighbors. This is a Chinese choice, but now China's neighbors and their allies, most importantly the United States must respond. While official U.S. policy has been to not take a position of territorial disputes, it cannot ignore a unilateral and provocative action that attempts to alter the status quo and confront the rest of the region with a fait accompli that alters the environment in China's favor.