Recent tension on China’s maritime borders has caused a sharp intake of breath in capitals across the region and around the world. Picking fights with Vietnam in its own backyard is something that few come away from in good shape; like the misadventures of the United States in the 1960s and early 70s, China’s clashes with Vietnam have been traumatising ones. The 1979 conflict was the last significant occasion on which the People’s Liberation Army had combat experience, and it was also the moment when the Chinese saw that their army, so vast in terms of personnel, was simply unable to deal with so determined a foe.
Which raises the question: why risk inflaming a formidable neighbour once again? There are two broad ways to begin to understand the latest escalations in the South and East China Seas: the first is to see them as part of a quest by China not just for physical space, but also for status and symbolic space; the second is to link them to a government seeking new forms of legitimacy as its economic challenges become more complicated and domestic problems continue to mount. Getting tough on the outside world forges unity in ways that local issues seldom do.
On the first of those factors, a 16 May editorial in the Global Times was illuminating. The Global Times might be one of China’s more unashamedly populist papers, but behind the editorial’s shrill tone lay an important point. Berating the Vietnamese for their latest response to Chinese infringements of contested territory, the paper complained that Vietnam still regards China as a weak, developing economy, rather than the proud, mighty nation it now is. No political leader in China would say this sort of thing quite so blatantly, but plenty of observers have detected a leadership tired of posing as humble, cooperative partners in the international order – a leadership that believes the world’s second-largest economy needs more recognition and more elbow room.
In this sense, the matter of physical space can be translated into a question of symbolic space. Chinese intellectuals of the left – Beijing University’s Wang Hui among them – have complained of an America which, in Wang’s words, extends right up to the borders of China via its influence over treaty partners and its cultural reach. China feels crowded in by a regional order in which it must reluctantly subjugate its economic importance in order to placate a United States that constantly seeks affirmation and feels it can project its influence in ways that, if reciprocated by China, would bring accusations of over-assertiveness.
Liu Yunshan, the Politburo member in charge of ideology, captured some of this frustration in 2008 and 2009 when he complained of a world that failed to acknowledge China’s contribution and true status. He was referring to negative responses to the Beijing Olympics, but the mismatch continues between a Chinese ruling elite that feels it has achieved great things and a world that seems bent on denying it full recognition.
Frustration is therefore a very strong theme in Beijing now, with military and political establishments seeking to push the boundaries all the time, while also aware of how much opposition is heaped against them. This search for symbolic space was clear when Xi Jinping met Barack Obama at Sunnylands last year: “The Pacific is big enough for both of us,” the Chinese president told the American president.
One place where China can move a little more freely is in economic space. In recent years it has projected into Africa (witness prime minister Li Keqiang’s visit to a number of sub-Saharan countries in early May, dispensing aid and largesse), Latin America and a number of developed economies through investment and strategic partnerships. But even here there is a fly in the ointment. Beijing sees the Trans-Pacific Partnership, dominated by the United States, as another attempt by Washington to contain China’s markets. Yet again, China’s space is being curtailed.
This might explain recent events, but it doesn’t excuse China’s poor diplomacy, which has left it largely without regional alliances at a time when its economic reach and ambitions are increasing. The simple fact is that the United States remains at the centre of a remarkable series of treaty alliances, and this, above all, gives it the strategic strength to project its interests so deeply into the region. What might lie behind China’s clumsy diplomacy of late, however, are domestic issues – the fact that growth is falling, that economic indicators are looking less dazzling than they did a couple of years ago, that so much growth is now dependent on an internal housing market that looks more fragile as each month passes.
Li Keqiang has referred to the macroeconomic challenge of finding “new spaces of growth,” but in this case he means space within China for new development opportunities that reduce reliance on the outside markets that proved so capricious during the 2008–09 global crisis. Li’s metaphor might apply just as well politically: as the crucial card of economic performance becomes less reliable, the Party is seeking new spaces for growth in terms of its legitimacy.
That is the link to foreign policy. A Chinese government no longer able to forge consensus in Beijing through strong, dynamic growth knows that loyalty must now come from another source – and a vision of national strength and mission is the best and easiest card to reach for. Like Vladimir Putin, who has enjoyed huge public approval since playing tough over Ukraine, Chinese leaders must be tempted by the public support they will receive for being tough on their neighbours, and particularly Japan, where historical animosities are so deep.
On almost constant “war alert” over border disputes, the Chinese government can also play tougher back at home by dealing more harshly with separatists and other elements that look like they are jeopardising cohesion during a moment of external threat. This is not to deny that some of these security threats are real. But building national consensus on the basis of permanent crisis is an old trick with two big problems: it cedes a great deal of control to volatile and nationalist public sentiment, and it risks the possibility that rhetorical threats might just lead to real conflict.
If it toughens up further and faster in the region in order to keep domestic tensions under control, the Chinese government could at some point lose control, and fights over symbolism could become physical combat. This is a worrying time in the region, and the current trajectory of events, like the condition of the Chinese economy itself, is looking more negative than a year ago. But China’s quest for those two kinds of space was probably inevitable as it grew richer, so we need to think harder about how it can come to occupy spaces that recognise its status while being acceptable to the rest of the world and reducing the threat of combat. We are entering a period of deep readjustment and compromise, and there is no road map in Beijing, Washington or anywhere else for that matter that is going to make this easy. •