TOKYO—Anyone paying even passing attention to the news from East Asia knows that the rise of China has taken a bad turn in recent years, and that our closest allies in the region feel threatened by the increasingly belligerent policies of President Xi. It’s not clear, however, that even well informed Americans realize how dire the situation is. It’s time they paid better attention, because China’s lawless pursuit of resources and territory is coming to resemble nothing else so much as the behavior of the Japanese empire before World War Two—a disconcerting comparison I have heard more than once from analysts and government officials here, where I have been traveling with a group of journalists and policy experts on a trip arranged by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Xi’s strategic vision holds that much of the western Pacific—the area within the so-called "first island chain" that stretches south from the Japanese archipelago through the Philippines and Malaysia, and which includes the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea—is effectively a Chinese lake. The other sovereign countries that border this critical part of the world reside, in this view, within a Chinese version of Putin’s "near-abroad." They must be taught to accept Chinese hegemony, and interlopers like the United States must be compelled to retreat to the "second island chain," which stretches south from Japan through the Mariana Islands, which include Guam.
This deeply illiberal vision isn’t just talk. China is taking step after aggressive step to turn it into a de facto reality. In the East China Sea, China in 2013 declared an Air Defense Identification Zone that includes Japan’s Senkaku islands—a small chain to which China laid a belated claim after undersea natural resources were discovered nearby in the seventies. The U.S. government does not take a position on which country exercises sovereignty over the islands, but has made clear that because the islands are under Japanese administrative control, America is obligated to join its ally Japan in defending them.
Since the air defense zone has been declared, incursions by fleets of Chinese fishing boats—some of which appear to be crewed by ad hoc Chinese maritime militiamen—accompanied by armed vessels of the Chinese coast guard have skyrocketed in number. In the first week of this August alone, there were 18 intrusions into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus by Chinese coast guard vessels, according to figures provided by the Japanese government.
In the South China Sea, Beijing has been more aggressive, seizing disputed islands and reefs, expanding its footprint with land reclamation projects, and building military installations atop the artificial terrain. Having learned a lesson by declaring an air defense zone in the East China Sea before they had the capacity to enforce it, the Chinese have held off with that step in this region. But that won’t last if China proceeds as expected with seizing and building a military facility atop Scarborough Shoal, an uninhabited piece of key terrain that, once built up, will complete a triangle of such installations in the area. After that, an enforceable air defense zone would likely be declared, assets of the U.S. military would operate at greatly increased risk, and Chinese ballistic missile submarines would sail with a lowered threat of U.S. monitoring, armed with missiles that could strike the U.S. mainland.
Everywhere that China is operating, affairs trend in the wrong direction for a rules-based international order. China’s goal is hegemony in the western Pacific. Once the U.S. is forced from the region and China’s neighbors have accommodated Beijing, it is not too hard to imagine that the People’s Republic will look to seize Taiwan.
Such developments are still in the future, but the coming year will be especially dangerous. Even though the Chinese military cannot yet defeat America in a conflict, China’s politburo is about to undergo a reshuffle. The possible instability incentivizes Chinese leaders to be provocative, in order to harness nationalist sentiment and stave off domestic threats to the regime. Moreover, the Chinese are very much aware that the Obama administration has little appetite for confrontation, and also that a new president, if tested aggressively shortly after taking office, could easily fail her exam.
The good news is that it is still not too late for China to be stopped without a war. The bad news is that this result will require unfaltering American resolve and leadership. Though America’s friends in the region have been pleased with the idea of the so-called "rebalancing" of U.S. military forces to reinforce assets in the Asia Pacific, they have been dismayed by how long it has taken the Obama administration to get serious about the Chinese test—and are worried that the White House itself still may not be serious enough to pass it. That President Obama has been considering declaring a policy of "No First Use" for America’s nuclear weapons dismays even the current leaders of Japan, who guide a country with a deeply ingrained anti-nuclear tradition but one that also relies on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its survival.
China has a habit of testing American presidents soon after they take office. George W. Bush faced the issue of an American surveillance plane being forced down on Hainan Island in 2001, and Obama had to deal with an attempt by Chinese ships to block the passage of the U.S.S. Impeccable in international waters in 2009. The next president will certainly face another provocation in 2017, and a robust menu of responses must be planned now, before the crisis arrives.
There is a long list of American policies that stop short of armed action but that could also impose pain on the Chinese government and—most importantly—cause it to lose face before its own population, a matter of great concern to Chinese leaders. These could include U.S. recognition of Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus and allowing American general officers to travel to Taiwan, which is currently forbidden in an effort to avoid offending Beijing.
Most importantly, the next president must be prepared to draw the line on Chinese territorial expansions, none of which can now be rolled back, but which cannot be allowed to grow. A bold move worth considering is informing China that any effort to reclaim land on Scarborough will trigger a U.S. blockade of the shoal.
If the new administration passes its test and succeeds in deterring the Chinese from further expansionism in the short term, its long term strategy should focus on strengthening the network of America’s regional allies, building up their militaries, and encouraging them to work with one another—a devilishly complex task given the difficult and painful historical disputes among these countries. All of this will be difficult, and some of it quite risky, but the cost of inaction will be the dismantling of the international liberal order and its replacement by a new age of empires. The next American president will decide what the future holds.