Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects a guard of honor outside the Great… (Andy Wong / Associated Press )
It would be difficult to believe that China's leaders didn't expect a negative reaction from its neighbors and the United States when it announced the creation of an expansive air defense identification zone over the East China Sea in late November. But that raises the question of why those leaders are behaving the way they are when China has so many domestic problems that need urgent attention, and when China's continued growth and ability to deal with those problems depends on a stable international order. Why pick fights now?
Indeed, for many years, the public rhetoric from Beijing was centered on China's "Peaceful Rise." Unlike the emergence of other great powers, China's move to the front ranks of nation-states would not, the Chinese argued, be accompanied by a militancy aimed at displacing hegemonies.
China would not, its interlocutors with the West said, follow in the footsteps of Wilhelmine Germany, Imperial Japan or, for that matter, 1890s America. Chinese behavior was to be governed by former leader Deng Xiaoping's admonition that it would "not seek leadership" and would "maintain a low profile." Until China could exercise preeminence, it was best, Deng advised, to "hide our capacities and bide our time."
With good reason. China's remarkable leap from impoverished nation to the second-largest economy in the world has been made possible by an international economic order that it has taken full advantage of. Beijing has every reason not to kill the golden goose of globalization by turning the attention of the region's other powers from trade and business to matters of security and armaments. Nor would one think that China would want to challenge the United States now since, arguably, it is American power and leadership that has largely kept the world's trading system humming by keeping both the great commons free and cataclysmic wars among the great powers from happening.
So, again, why the aggressive behavior now?
One answer Sinologists give is bureaucratic: The military made me do it. The argument here is that China's civilian leaders, who are always looking for ways to increase their own support within the competing factions of the Communist Party, will accordingly give the military more resources and more leeway to garner that support.
But there is no solid evidence to support this thesis, and it runs counter to what we know about how one-party states operate. Keeping the folks with the guns and the tanks under the party leadership's control is a ruling axiom that no senior Chinese Communist Party official would intentionally ignore. And since taking over the party's reins in November 2012, President Xi Jinping has left little doubt as to who is in charge of military and security affairs.
The other argument offered to explain recent Chinese behavior is linked to American weakness. In 2009, with the great recession underway, the Obama administration's grand strategic outreach to Beijing was seen by the Chinese as a sign of U.S. retreat. Talk at the time from senior American officials of a possible G-2 and President Obama's statement that "the relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century," making "it as important as any bilateral relationship in the world" appeared to convince that Chinese that its rise to the top might be occurring faster than anticipated because of a more precipitous U.S. decline.
This narrative has only increased as the administration's planned "pivot" to Asia has been undercut by declining defense budgets and doubt that the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement will be concluded anytime soon.
However, perceived U.S. weakness cannot be the whole story, even if it's an important part. What are also at play are Chinese ambitions. China's leaders want their nation to be a great power; they want China, as in its imperial past, to have a predominant say in the region. Xi's earliest speeches and appearances were to stoke the "Chinese Dream," and it was on his watch that Chinese passports were issued with watermark maps that included territories claimed by Japan, Vietnam the Philippines and India.
From Beijing's perspective, the United States is the region's interloper and the principal obstacle to obtaining that goal of predominance. And, like individuals, nations can be envious and resentful of those they perceive as standing in the way, even when economic and trade ties are substantial. One has only to remember the dynamic between Wilhelmine Germany and Britain in the years leading up to World War I to appreciate the need to design policies that face up to this reality so as to avoid a similar disaster.
When Deng spoke of China maintaining a low profile, it was, after all, only until it was safe to exercise its power openly. One can certainly question whether China has reached that point. But that is the problem with grand ambitions; they are difficult to stifle or retreat from.
If one had to predict, dealing with Beijing in the year ahead is not likely to get any easier — if anything, it may be even more difficult.
Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.