A War of Words Over the South China Sea

Admiral Sun Jianguo (left), deputy chief of general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), arrives with his aides for a plenary session at the 15th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 5, 2016

Beginning earlier this year, four-star Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. Navy’s top commander in the Pacific, has spoken out in speeches, interviews, private meetings, and testimony to Congress urging that the U.S. take more aggressive action against what he characterizes as China’s push for hegemony in Asia. In early June, Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo gave a speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in which he implied that the U.S. looks to international law only when it’s convenient, and proclaimed China’s peace-loving intentions even as he threatened a fight. Which admiral’s comments more accurately describe the reality of what is happening in the South and East China seas?

If the U.S.-China strategic communication continues the pattern established since 2015, tension between the two countries over the South China Sea is only likely to increase. The pattern is well illustrated by the remarks from the U.S. side by Admiral Harry Harris over the past year and from the Chinese side by Admiral Sun Jianguo’s speech at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

It is not clear what Harris means by “Chinese hegemony” in East Asia. If he has in mind “military dominance,” then the current military hegemon in the Western Pacific is clearly the United States. If the mere fact of military hegemony is the problem, then surely the current American military dominance is as much a problem as a putative Chinese military hegemony in the future.

But is it China’s plan to establish military hegemony in East Asia? The question is impossible to answer as it tries to divine China’s strategic intentions. Great power intentions are hard to ascertain, not least because they may change in the future. But it is important to note that inside China, policy elites are still debating about China’s strategic goals in East Asia. No doubt some people, especially those from the military, entertain the ambition of a Chinese military hegemony in East Asia. But it is by no means the majority view, and it has to compete with other influential policy ideas from other segments of China’s policy and intellectual communities.

The point of policy significance is this: It is politically counterproductive to turn a possible future Chinese ambition into a putative current policy decision. Such comments from the U.S. navy’s top commander in the Pacific only suggests to Chinese leaders that the American military leadership is misreading, intentionally or not, China’s policy toward the South China Sea. This will only encourage them to make worst-case preparations in the event that such a military view is turned into America’s official policy toward China. To be sure, China’s policy is sometimes hard to read. But it will not be too difficult for the U.S. military to find a less inflammatory and politicized strategic discourse than has been deployed since last year, in order to create more room for diplomacy and compromise.

The problem on the Chinese side is the opposite of the U.S. error. While the U.S. accuses China of a hegemonic ambition, China goes to the other extreme of denying any such ambition at all. Unfortunately, on this increasingly vital issue of a possible Chinese hegemony in East Asia, the two sides keep talking past each other. For historical reasons, when Chinese leaders reject hegemony, they are thinking of it in terms of 19th century colonialism and imperialism in the form of physical exploitation and conquest. It is time for Chinese leaders to recognize that to some Western policy elites, hegemony may come in different forms that can be underpinned by different dimensions of national power. Legitimate authority can be a form of hegemony, as can military dominance. China needs to think hard about its strategic goals in East Asia, and in the process provide a convincing strategic narrative to the outside world.

How much should the world fear a Chinese hegemony in East Asia, if it ever comes true? A Chinese hegemony would be different from an American hegemony, just as American hegemony in the Western camp in the early years of the Cold War was different from Soviet hegemony in the Communist bloc. In a book published last year, I explored the dynamics of Chinese hegemony in East Asian history about 600 years ago, and it seems that Chinese rulers back then were more interested in establishing legitimate authority in regional politics than in installing military dominance. It will be most interesting to watch what a powerful People’s Republic of China would do in asserting its regional leadership. –
© ChinaFile


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About

Dr Feng Zhang (PhD, LSE) is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy, Asia-Pacific security, and international relations theory. He is also Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.

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