Why are Chinese leaders so paranoid about the United States?
- By Ely RatnerEly Ratner is the Maurice R. Greenberg senior fellow in China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden from 2015 to 2017 and previously served in the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs at the State Department and as a professional staff member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His current work focuses on U.S.-China relations, regional security in East Asia, and U.S. national security policy in Asia.
Every two years, Beijing issues a defense white paper assessing its national security environment and describing the ongoing modernization of China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). And every two years, U.S. defense analysts are disappointed by just how little useful information it contains.
The latest offering, "The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces," released in mid-April, does provide some new details on the roles, organization, and size of the PLA and its paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police. Building on the previous seven editions, the report also describes the widening scope of Chinese military missions as well as China’s growing ability to protect those interests overseas. But mostly the paper regurgitates propagandistic platitudes and pre-existing material.
What the 2013 white paper does show is a China deeply concerned about the "pivot" to Asia by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. China is facing a "volatile security situation," it reads, in part because U.S. rebalancing is sabotaging regional stability. Although the document innocuously notes that the United States is "adjusting its Asia-Pacific security strategy," it goes on to suggest: "Some country [read: the United States] has strengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded its military presence in the region, and frequently makes the situation there tenser."
This argument is frequently heard in China and regularly devolves into conspiracy theories about how Washington has been pushing and prodding its allies to challenge Beijing. Senior Chinese officials claim, even in private, that the United States masterminded a number of actions against China in the region, including Burma’s September 2011 suspension of the corruption-ridden Chinese-sponsored Myitsone Dam project; the Philippines’ April 2012 decision to detain illegal Chinese fishermen near Scarborough Shoal, which both countries claim; and the former Tokyo governor’s April 2012 announcement that he intended to purchase three Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese claim as their own and call the Diaoyu Islands, from a private Japanese citizen.
In October, Chen Jian, a former Chinese ambassador to Japan, told a Hong Kong audience that many Chinese viewed the Senkaku dispute as "a time bomb planted by the U.S. between China and Japan." The purpose of this "bomb," or so the narrative goes, is to draw the U.S. military deeper into the region’s security affairs, preserving U.S. preeminence by constraining China’s rise.
Alas, this argument runs counter to both reality and U.S. strategy. The United States has de-escalated tensions by responding to crises in the South China and East China seas with intense, high-level U.S. diplomacy. U.S. policymakers know that it is counterproductive for the United States to ignite regional crises, which are bad for business and unnecessarily complicate relations with Beijing. Most components of the U.S. rebalancing — from enhanced security cooperation to increased trade ties to greater engagement with regional institutions — would suffer from a more fractured Asia. This is one of the main reasons that ensuring stable U.S.-China relations is central to the overall strategy.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume the white paper’s accusations reflect a more nuanced Chinese position that renewed U.S. engagement in Asia emboldens U.S. allies to take actions they would not do otherwise. As Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, said in September 2012, "Japan would not have been so aggressive without the support and actions of the U.S."
Fortunately, the United States has been dealing with the challenges of alliance management for over 60 years, and U.S. diplomats have been quick to express significant concerns to the likes of Japan and the Philippines about potentially destabilizing behavior. Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Tokyo in mid-April urging countries to avoid "unilateral" and "provocative" actions were intended for capitals throughout the region, not just Beijing. Although allies could always miscalculate, it does not appear that their foreign-policy decisions are distorted by a serious misunderstanding of U.S. intentions and expectations.
Nevertheless, what is striking about Chinese assessments of the U.S. rebalancing is that they are rarely, if ever, accompanied by an awareness of the self-defeating consequences of China’s own coercive behavior. Instead, a deeply embedded historical perception of victimization persists in China.
Despite a regional consensus to the contrary, China continues to argue that it is being provoked into confronting its neighbors. This is possible in theory, but China has been extraordinarily escalatory during recent crises. In the last year alone, it erected a rope barrier to block Philippine ships during a standoff at Scarborough Shoal, sent maritime and naval vessels into waters it has not historically administered, and engaged in economic coercion to exact financial pain on its antagonists. Whatever one thinks about the misdeeds of the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam, in the last few years no country in the region has even come close to this level of provocation.
And Beijing’s undiplomatic behavior is often in sharp and bewildering contrast to the "charm offensive" that scholars were describing less than a decade ago. Diplomats in the region are saying privately that Fu Ying, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs for Asia, recently summoned Southeast Asian ambassadors in Beijing to propose excluding the Philippines, a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), from ongoing China-ASEAN negotiations over a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
This followed on the heels of Beijing’s 2012 efforts to co-opt Cambodia’s chairmanship of ASEAN. Both incidents have blown up in Beijing’s face, renewing regional efforts to strengthen ASEAN and contest growing Chinese influence and interference. While the white paper denounces the "increasing hegemonism, power politics and neo-interventionism" (presumably of the United States), these words could easily be used to describe China’s approach to Southeast Asia over the last two years.
Now the region is spooked and responding accordingly, with countries throughout Asia looking to the United States and each other to stem Chinese assertiveness. Singapore, the bellwether of pragmatism and balance, has been decreasingly shy about providing access to U.S. naval vessels, highlighted by the arrival of the first U.S. littoral combat ship in mid-April. And independent from the United States, countries including Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are deepening intraregional security cooperation.
These trends will almost assuredly result in greater U.S. military presence in Asia, complemented by growing security ties among its allies and partners. This is precisely what Beijing would like to avoid, yet China’s foreign-policy behavior marches on, creating new anxieties in the region that leave Beijing more isolated and insecure.
This raises the question of why Beijing keeps acting this way. Doesn’t it realize that forcing Southeast Asian countries to choose between China and ASEAN is a losing battle? Isn’t its illegal occupation of Scarborough Shoal a daily reminder of China’s willingness to bully the states that claim disputed territory in the South China Sea? And how should Vietnam or the Philippines interpret Beijing’s recent decision to make incursions into Japanese-administered airspace over the Senkaku Islands for the first time in 55 years?
It was previously thought that bureaucratic politics were to blame for Chinese adventurism.
While Chinese foreign policy is undoubtedly growing more pluralistic, bureaucratic explanations are less convincing now given significant efforts to better coordinate China’s actions in its near seas. President Xi Jinping himself leads China’s new maritime policymaking body. Rogue ship captains can always create incidents and accidents, but patterns of incrementally assertive behavior would not be occurring today without top-level guidance.
More insidious explanations remain. One is that a noxious combination of economic growth, military modernization, rising nationalism, and China’s perseverance through the global financial crisis has created a sense of outsized triumphalism.
The most likely — and worrisome — explanation is that domestic priorities drive China’s foreign policies, which are therefore often formulated at the expense of strategic and diplomatic considerations. And while the implications of coercing neighbors and illegally seizing territory are not necessarily desirable, they pale in comparison to the consequences of failing to confront the regime’s existential domestic challenges: economic slowdown, energy insecurity, and the growing political instabilities associated with dead pigs floating in rivers, a potential nationwide outbreak of avian flu, terrible traffic jams, sky-high real estate prices, and unbreathable air. No wonder the Chinese Communist Party works hard to keep populist foreign-policy issues in the headlines.
It would be comforting to learn that the defense white paper’s finger-pointing at the United States was just old-fashioned propaganda, behind which China is reassessing its foreign-policy approach. If domestic politics continue to drive Chinese diplomacy, however, Beijing will likely be unable and unwilling to recalibrate. The result will be an increasingly isolated China.
Perhaps the best hope is that Xi will begin confronting the reality that Beijing’s heavy-handed foreign policies are the principal cause of its rapidly deteriorating security environment. He could announce that China will negotiate with ASEAN on a full and meaningful code of conduct, agree to abide by future decisions of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, launch maritime confidence-building measures with the United States, end its occupation of Scarborough Shoal, and stop trying to alter the status quo of Japan’s decades-long administration of the Senkaku Islands. These actions would provide a tremendous boost to China’s standing in the region and likely curb the regional trends that Beijing perceives as restraining its rise. But they would also require a serious discussion with the Chinese people that is at odds with the current government’s jingoist rhetoric.
In the meantime, whatever China’s defense white paper has to say, the U.S. rebalancing to Asia is not containing China. Besides, a U.S. policy of containment is hardly necessary when China is so effectively containing itself.