Commentary

China’s Increased Assertiveness and Washington’s Unsubtle Response

November 2011 may well go down in history as the point at which the rivalry between the United States and China entered a new, more contentious phase. Several events occurred during that month illustrating two related themes. One was that Beijing had decided to end its relatively low-key stances regarding political and economic leadership in the Western Pacific and East Asia and to adopt a more vigorous posture. The other theme was that Washington did not react placidly to China’s greater assertiveness, but instead began to implement a rather unsubtle policy to contain, if not neutralize, those ambitions.

Chinese President Hu Jintao’s November 12 keynote address to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit highlighted the first theme. Although his language was generally conciliatory, Hu also reminded his listeners that China’s development was “a major force” for the growth of the Asia-Pacific and global economies. Perhaps more troubling for US policy makers, he stressed the importance of deepening the extent of regional economic integration. That goal included the need to boost both regional and subregional economic cooperation and to further develop free trade areas. Given Beijing’s increasingly patronizing relationship with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other small neighbors, suspicious Westerners could easily interpret such terms as “regional economic integration” and “regional and subregional economic cooperation” as little more than code for Chinese economic dominance in that part of the world.

Beyond the specific policy objectives and proposals in Hu’s speech, the entire tone suggested a greater willingness, indeed intent, on China’s part to play a far more active role in the region’s economic affairs. Indeed, early in the address, Hu placed great emphasis on the official theme of the summit, “redefining the future,” and encouraged the delegates to think deeply about the “changes and new features” of the “regional and world situation.” That was a rather pointed reminder of China’s increased economic and diplomatic clout.

Washington had already been fretting about Beijing’s growing assertiveness in regional and global affairs. China’s breathtaking broad territorial claims in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, as well as the extensive ties to energy-producing states in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America, were particular causes for concern. Hu’s APEC speech seemed to intensify those worries.

The U.S. reaction was both swift and abrasive. The first volley came from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a visit to the Philippines on November 16. Her most combative remarks involved the ongoing dispute between China and several of its neighbors (including the Philippines) over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. “Any nation with a claim has a right to exert it,” Clinton stated, “but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion.” She added that “the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you.” Although her comments could be interpreted merely as a boilerplate expression of the rationale for the six-decade-old mutual defense treaty, given the context of her critical comments over the past 18 months about China’s position on the South China Sea controversy, Beijing chose to interpret Clinton’s latest pronouncement as a warning regarding that issue. It was not likely a coincidence that just two days later, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that the territorial dispute “ought to be resolved through friendly consultations and discussions by countries directly involved.” In a jab at the United States, he added that “outside forces should not, under any pretext, get involved.”

Wen’s comment was accompanied on the same day by a press release in the official Xinhua News Agency announcing that the Chinese military would strengthen its ties with North Korea. That step was most unwelcome in Washington, since the Obama administration had been prodding Beijing to put more pressure on Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear-weapons program. A public announcement of even closer Chinese-North Korean military cooperation was hardly what US officials had in mind.

But such a step was entirely consistent with an expression of China’s annoyance at Washington over Clinton’s comments and other statements and actions that Beijing saw as hostile to Chinese interests. Indeed, Beijing might have been even more upset at President Obama’s statements during a visit to Australia. In an address to the Australian parliament on November 17, Obama boldly asserted that “the United States is a Pacific power, and we are here to stay.” He added that Washington had made a “strategic decision” that “the United States will play a larger and long-term role in shaping this region and its future.” Observers in Australia and throughout the region interpreted that comment as sending a message to China that the United States was not about to relinquish its hegemony in East Asia and let the PRC become the leading power.

The Canberra speech was not the only measure suggesting that Washington was adopting a harder line toward Beijing on security issues. Just hours before his address to parliament, Obama announced that the United States would send military aircraft and as many as 2,500 Marines to northern Australia over the next few years to develop a training hub to assist allies and protect American interests throughout the region. Security experts were at a loss to explain any motive for such a symbolic deployment other than to provide a veiled warning to China about engaging in any threatening behavior toward traditional US allies in East Asia.

The chill in China-USA relations comes at the start of the American presidential election cycle, and that too is probably not a coincidence. A surge in hard-line rhetoric regarding China seems to take place in almost every presidential election year. Bill Clinton famously denounced the Chinese leadership as the butchers of Beijing in the 1992 campaign. Ronald Reagan indicated during the 1980 campaign that he might rescind the Carter administration’s decision to transfer Washington’s diplomatic relations from the Chinese Nationalist government on Taiwan to Beijing. And, more recently, Barack Obama and John McCain vied with each other to see who could assume the tougher position regarding China’s alleged unfair trade practices.

During those previous episodes, Chinese leaders adopted relatively mild responses, convinced that they were witnessing mere posturing for domestic political reasons. This time, however, they seem far less inclined to brush off such provocations and wait for the resumption of “normal” US behavior, presumably after the election. Instead, the prompt and uncompromising response from Beijing suggests a new posture of greater assertiveness. That change may also reflect the realization that the latest rhetorical maneuvers by both countries are rooted in more fundamental competitive factors. If that is the case, the less-than-friendly November statements may herald a more complicated and uncooperative bilateral relationship.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.