China's recent vituperative reaction to the Japanese seizure of a trawler reflects a new and troubling assertiveness that places at risk the benign and conciliatory image it has assiduously cultivated in recent years.
By Shashank Joshi for RUSI.org
In the rough and tumble of international diplomacy, important trends are easily obscured by a flow of démarches, crises, and verbal pyrotechnics. The most recent flare-up in the South China Sea is no different. Two weeks ago Japan arrested a Chinese trawler captain whose boat had collided with a pair of Japanese Coast Guard vessels in disputed waters. The incident is perhaps the most serious since a Sino-Japanese rapprochement in 2006, but its significance extends beyond that still-troubled bilateral relationship.
The quarrel strengthens mounting perceptions of China's assertiveness which, despite the very low probability of an outbreak of armed conflict, threatens the robustness of Asia's faith in the doctrine of 'peaceful rise', a grand strategy which has held Beijing in good stead since the post-Mao era.
The arrest of Zhan Qixiong and his crew near what Japan calls the Senkaku and China the Diaoyu Islands was initially played down by Japan, but the vehemence of Beijing's reaction took Tokyo by surprise. China is especially incensed that the captain is to be tried under Japanese domestic law, an act that it sees as a provocative Japanese assertion of sovereignty. Markedly, China's foreign ministry warned that 'if Japan acts wilfully despite advice to the contrary and insists on making one mistake after another then China will take strong countermeasures and Japan shall bear all the consequences'. Japan's return of the crew and trawler has not mollified this anger.
As a result, China flexed its muscles in a series of harsh measures. All local and central government official contacts were severed, a mass trip of Japanese children to the Shanghai Expo was cancelled, and a joint exploration of gas reserves was suspended. Since former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi left office, bilateral relations have rarely reached this emotional pitch, but the episode might be interpreted as part of a wider pattern.
In the summer, responding to an intervention by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (itself at Vietnam's urging), China announced that its territorial claims in the South China Sea - through which 80% of its oil imports pass - comprised a 'core interest'. A tabloid published by the state-controlled People's Daily threatened that 'China will never waive its right to protect its core interest with military means'. Earlier in the year a flotilla from China's North Sea Fleet, whose base is in Qingdao, sailed into the disputed Spratly archipelago amidst air force exercises to simulate bombing raids.
The designation of these territorial claims (not to be confused with the Sino-Japanese tussle in the East China Sea) as 'core interests', on par with Taiwan and Tibet, represents a worrying escalation. The assertion also generates unwelcome medium-term constraints on Beijing from nationalist quarters; today's assertiveness complicates tomorrow's concessions, in ways that may be expedient for negotiations but raise the probability of tit-for-tat dynamics spiralling out of control.
The backdrop to this maritime discontent is the increasingly troubled US-China relationship. In January, a $6.4bn arms sale to Taiwan prompted a furious reaction from China, which froze military-to-military contacts and rejected the suggestion of a trip by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Later in the year, joint US-Korean naval exercises triggered more anger in Beijing. Bilateral trade remains hugely lopsided in China's favour, deemed by many in Washington to be the result of an unfairly suppressed exchange rate.
The escalating tension with Japan and Southeast Asian states also accords with an increasingly prominent narrative that paints China's growing naval power as opaque in intent and potentially dangerous in size. Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have all acquired a submarine force in recent years, and India has sought to renew its own ability to field attack and ballistic missile submarines - in addition to a three carrier, blue-water navy. Japan announced a submarine expansion in the summer. For China's part, what had long been assumed became increasingly apparent: that it would seek to field an aircraft carrier within years.
China's present capabilities remain starkly limited, and the PLA Navy has for decades been configured towards sea denial - hindering a hypothetical US naval intervention to defend or assist Taiwan - rather than power projection away from Chinese shores. But now, the two crucial strands of motive and opportunity - the forceful assertion of China's resolve on the one hand, and the gradual accretion of naval capabilities able to violently enforce those claims on the other - are coming together. This naturally elicits concern in Tokyo, Washington, Delhi, and a collection of smaller actors, the latter having enjoyed largely stable and profitable relations with post-reform China and its profoundly dynamic economy.
This is not to suggest that China is solely at fault. For instance, Japan's coast guard has been described as 'already a fourth branch of the Japanese military' whose tremendous modernisation is 'the most significant and least heralded Japanese military development since the end of the Cold War'. In 2005, its aggregate tonnage was over 60% that of China's surface fleet.  After the latest spat, Japan cordoned off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and declared that any Chinese ships breaking two cordons would be subject to seizure. China has despatched maritime surveillance ships to the area to 'strengthen law enforcement'. Under these conditions of intense naval competition, relative proximity, and loud declarations of undying resolve and national pride, the prospect of a destabilising crisis inches upwards.
There is a plausible case to be made that China has in important ways, played a constructive and cooperative role in Asian stability over recent years. It has made a string of concessions on its disputed land boundaries (the Sino-Indian boundary being an important and notable exception) and cooperated with the US on economic and security issues. It has vastly improved relations with Japan and thrown itself enthusiastically into multilateral diplomacy including the various offshoots of ASEAN. Perhaps most importantly, it has functioned as a powerful engine of both the Asian and world economies (in 2003, Japan rode the coat-tails of Chinese expansion to export its way out of its blighted economic decade).
These measures however have been neither consistent nor complete - China continues its nuclear proliferation to Pakistan, and has proved stubborn on North Korea. Yet these observations still ought to temper the most pessimistic assessments that a rising China is incompatible with a US-led world order and a US-centred alliance system in Asia, and that foresee major conflict as virtually inevitable. At least in part, it has been China's highly conscious and persistent strategy of reassurance - the repeated insistence that its development will be peaceful - that has mitigated the regional fears that accompany the economic and military rise of any nation-state. China's neighbours have mostly sought to tie down China in a web of rules, principles, and institutions in the hope its rise can be managed. Balancing against China has been low profile and cautious. Even India has been deeply wary of overt measures directed at its top source of imports. Beijing has understandably focused on internal development, and believed the stability of its external frontiers to be linked to its future prosperity.
This is precisely why the sharp hostility with which it has struck out at Japan is worrying. It represents both an unwelcome escalation of tensions, and feeds the common perception that China has adopted a policy that is more assertive and less conciliatory than that which had buttressed its rise so far. This can only tarnish its painstaking efforts to reassure the world of its peaceful intentions, a development that would herald a new and more precarious phase in the Asian balance.
The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the RUSI.
1 Richard J. Samuels, ""New Fighting Power!" Japan's Growing Maritime Capabilities and East Asian Security," International Security 32, no. 3 (2008): 84-112, p.99