These are times of mounting drama and tension in the long power play of China’s rise in Asia. Thus, it is more important than ever for American policy makers to peer behind the curtain to see when rising-power loneliness is dressed as leadership and when confidence is a mask for insecurity.
In mid-2014, strategic competition in Asia has become far more than theater. Chinese and Vietnamese vessels jostle and swarm around an oil rig provocatively deployed to contested waters. Chinese ships blockade the Philippines garrison on a contested shoal, while Beijing rejects Manila’s bid for international arbitration. Further north, Chinese and Japanese warplanes narrowly avoid collision while Russian and Chinese warships train ostentatiously nearby. Anti-Chinese riots turn deadly in Vietnam. Sooner or later an incident will turn deadly at sea.
Beijing and Moscow proclaim a new alignment, a united front of energy, arms sales and authoritarian posturing. In Shanghai, Chinese President Xi Jinping challenges the U.S.-led strategic order by suddenly invigorating a little-known regional summit that locks out most American allies. In Singapore, Japanese Prime Minister Abe implicitly offers Japan as a security partner for nations troubled by Chinese power; Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warns against Chinese “coercion and intimidation,” and a Chinese General publicly accuses both of crossing the line of acceptable diplomacy. Taken together, this suggests a bleak forecast for the Asian security environment—hardening and increasingly overt strategic competition between China and the U.S. alliance system, leading either to disastrous conflict or gradual U.S. backdown to allow a China-dominated order in a region central to global prosperity.
But the truth is far less simple, and deeply contingent on what happens next—on the choices ahead for leaders in Washington and elsewhere. The Asian strategic order may now be in play; its U.S.-led character is under question, but this is a complex, multilayered game. If China is seeking to rattle America and others—especially Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam—it may be miscalculating. In the long run, the premature displays of confidence China has lately shown are likely to harm its interests more than advance them.