Responding to Chinese Assertiveness
By: Zack Cooper
China has been increasingly assertive in the East and South China Seas in recent months. In late 2013, Beijing announced its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which overlaps disputed maritime areas claimed by South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. In early 2014, Beijing stepped up its South China Sea pressure by drilling for oil in territory claimed by Vietnam and blocking resupply of a Filipino ship on Second Thomas Shoal. Although these actions fall short of outright violence, they fit the Japanese phrase “creeping aggression.”
To date, U.S. leaders have responded to China’s creeping aggression by seeking a return to the status quo and restating existing security commitments—as President Obama did during his recent trip to Japan—but Washington has generally attempted to avoid angering Beijing. As a White House staffer said recently, “showing up matters a lot in Asia.” The White House view appears to be that if the United States plays its traditional reassuring role, no major additional actions are necessary.
Yet, after a year in which China has repeatedly used coercion to create new facts on the ground, simply seeking a return to the status quo lets Beijing off the hook too easily. If Washington seeks to manage Beijing’s transgressions by simply urging both sides to avoid conflict, it will both embolden China and alienate potential partners who need U.S. backing to stand up to Beijing’s bullying. Moreover, efforts to reinstate the status quo levy no cost on China for its escalatory actions. China must pay a price for its assertiveness. After all, if there is no penalty for Chinese assertiveness, why would China avoid further escalation?
Such an approach needn’t be provocative, but it should clearly communicate to Beijing that coercive actions will push its neighbors away and force Washington to intervene more actively on their behalf. The United States should use Chinese assertiveness as an opportunity for coalition building, not simply another crisis to be managed. Regional states still view the United States as a vital source of support, but if Washington appears weak or distracted as Beijing grows more assertive, these states will be forced to reassess their alignment choices.