China’s growing geopolitical heft is emboldening its territorial creep in Asia. After laying claim formally to more than 80% of the South China Sea, it has just established a so-called air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, raising the odds of armed conflict with Japan and threatening the principle of freedom of navigation of the seas and skies. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic continues to nibble furtively at territory across the long, disputed Himalayan border with India.
Few seem to fathom the logic behind China’s readiness to take on several neighbors simultaneously. China is seeking to alter the status quo gradually as part of a high-stakes effort to extend its control to strategic areas and resources. President Xi Jinping’s promise of national greatness — embodied in the catchphrase “China dream” — is tied as much to achieving regional hegemony as to internal progress.
China’s approach reflects what the Chinese general Zhang Zhaozhong this year called a “cabbage” strategy: assert a territorial claim and gradually surround the area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to a rival. The strategy relies on a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground.
This approach severely limits rival states’ options by confounding their deterrence plans and making it difficult for them to devise proportionate or effective counter-measures. This is partly because the strategy — while bearing all the hallmarks of modern Chinese brinkmanship, including reliance on stealth, surprise, and a disregard for the risks of military escalation — seeks to ensure that the initiative remains with China.
The pattern has become familiar: construct a dispute, initiate a jurisdictional claim through periodic incursions, and then increase the frequency and duration of such intrusions, thereby establishing a military presence or pressuring a rival to cut a deal on China’s terms. What is ours is ours, the Chinese invariably claim, and what is yours is negotiable. For example, China says “no foundation for dialogue” with Japan exists unless the Japanese accept the existence of a territorial dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands.
Here, as elsewhere, China has painted its rival as the obstructionist party. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi put it, “Japan needs to recognize that there is such a dispute. The whole world knows that there is a dispute.” But there is a dispute only because China has succeeded in shaking the status quo in recent years by popularizing the islands’ Chinese name (“Diaoyu”) and staging incursions into their territorial waters and airspace.
After steadily increasing the frequency of those incursions since September 2012, China has recently begun increasing their duration. The establishment of a new air defense identification zone extending over the islands is its latest cabbage-style security “layer” — a unilateral power grab that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel quickly branded “a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region.” The zone even covers the sky over the Leodo (Suyan) Reef, a submerged rock that both South Korea and China claim. As China escalates its campaign of attrition against a resolute Japan, it increases the risk of armed conflict, whether by accident or miscalculation.
China’s strategy has had more success — without provoking serious risks — against the weaker Philippines. This is apparent from China’s effective seizure last year of Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and the controlling presence of Chinese vessels this year around the Second Thomas Shoal, part of the disputed Spratly Islands. China has not yet tried to evict the eight Filipino marines still living on the Second Thomas Shoal, but Zhang has included this shoal in the country’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea.
China is not aiming for control of just a few shoals or other tiny outcroppings; it seeks to dominate the South and East China Seas strategically and corner maritime resources, including seabed minerals. The combined land area of the Senkaku and Spratly Islands amounts to barely 11 square kilometers; but the islands are surrounded by rich hydrocarbon reserves. While seeking to enlarge incrementally its military footprint in the more than 80% of the South China Sea that it claims, China’s aim in the East China Sea is to break out of the so-called “first island chain,” a string of archipelagos along the East Asian coast that includes the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan.
By contrast, vast tracts of disputed land are at stake in the resource-rich Himalayan region. Here, too, China’s incursions, after increasing in frequency, are now being staged intermittently for longer periods.
Make no mistake: China’s territorial creep is contributing to Asian insecurity, fueling political tension, and turning the world’s economically most vibrant continent into a potentially global hot spot.
To be sure, China is careful to avoid any dramatic action that could become a casus belli by itself. Indeed, it has repeatedly shown a knack for disaggregating its strategy into multiple parts and then pursuing each element separately in such a manner as to allow the different pieces to fall into place with minimal resistance.
This shrewdness not only keeps opponents off balance; it also undercuts the relevance of US security assurances to allies and the value of building countervailing strategic partnerships in Asia. In fact, by camouflaging offense as defense, China casts the burden of starting a war on an opponent, while it seeks to lay the foundation — brick by brick — of a hegemonic Middle Kingdom. Chinese leaders’ stated desire to resolve territorial disputes peacefully simply means achieving a position strong enough to get their way without having to fire a shot.