MOSHER: China’s approaching hegemony

As the Middle Kingdom grows more powerful, it is becoming more bellicose

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Everywhere we look, we see evidence of China’s increasing aggressiveness.

Since September, China has been vigorously asserting its new claim to the Senkaku Islands by sending a constant stream of naval vessels and planes to harass Japanese patrol boats there. Not only that, a top Chinese general has questioned the legitimacy of Japanese claims not just to the tiny Senkakus, but also to the entire Ryukyu Island chain, including Okinawa with its U.S. military bases.

In May, Chinese troops intruded nearly 12 miles into Indian territory, withdrawing only after India agreed to withdraw its own troops from the area. The high-altitude border dispute, which has been simmering since the Sino-Indian War of 1962, involves territory the size of Greece with a population of more than 1 million.

Then there is the South China Sea, where China has been aggressively asserting its sovereignty over the 1.4 million-square-mile stretch of open ocean. In November, Beijing announced that Chinese authorities would board and seize control of foreign ships that “illegally enter” the area that it claims is part of the province of Hainan. Seizing ships in international waters is an act of war under international law.

China also has sowed seeds of conflict by continuing to expand its military presence in the area. Last year, it seized the Scarborough Shoal, which lies off the coast of the Philippines. When that country protested, China reacted by saying that the Philippines‘ claims were illegal and that it never would agree to international arbitration over the shoal or any other claims. In January, it issued a map that for the first time precisely delineated its grandiose claim. What the map shows is the largest attempted land grab since World War II. It is as if Nazi Germany had claimed the entire Mediterranean Sea as sovereign territory.

On it goes. Nearly every month, China is making a new territorial claim or bullying its neighbors over an existing one. Worse yet, it is defining these claims, like its long-standing claims to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, as “core interests” that are vital to national survival and are emphatically not up for negotiation.

Many China analysts are completely flummoxed by this behavior. They had imagined that China’s opening to the West would result in a modernizing, democratizing China that would willingly take its place in the existing international system. A younger, foreign-educated leadership would renounce force in favor of negotiation. The kinds of armed conflict that marred the country’s first three decades would be a thing of the past, and any remaining territorial disputes would be resolved peaceably.

However, China’s integration into the world economy apparently has not defanged the Chinese party-state, nor led it, metaphorically speaking, to beat its swords into plowshares. Instead, it is taking the money that it has made from selling cheap, state-subsidized “plowshares” around the world and using it to make “swords,” which it is brandishing with increasing frequency.

I see China’s behavior as reflecting something fundamental about the nature of the Chinese party-state. A government that rules its own people by brute force — remember Tiananmen Square — is naturally inclined to treat its smaller, weaker neighbors the same way.

This accounts for the palpable disdain with which it treats the other claimants in the South China Sea dispute, including Vietnam and the Philippines, both of which have stronger claims to the Spratlys and Paracels than does China.

Only the presence of the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Far East stays China’s hand. Were that force to be withdrawn to Hawaii, as China has suggested, there is little doubt that China then would occupy the remaining islands in the South China Sea by force, ejecting the garrisons of other nations, and begin to demand that ships transiting its “interior waters” first seek permission to do so or run the risk of being boarded and quarantined.

Deng Xiaoping once advised his immediate successors, who ruled a much weaker China, to “bide your time and hide your capabilities.”

That was then. Now China’s capabilities approach parity with the United States in the Pacific theater — and far, far exceed those of all of its nearest neighbors except Japan.

Emboldened by new capabilities and firmly in control of the Chinese polity, the next generation of Chinese leaders apparently has decided that it no longer has to bide its time or hide its capabilities.

Welcome to the new world order of Chinese hegemony.

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