Tensions in the Far East are high. China is, apparently, engaging in traditional geopolitics in the South China Sea building artificial military outposts, increasing their troop and hardware presence, and making territorial claims on disputed international waters. What motivates this behavior? Much commentary on the issue discusses Chinas behavior as driven by economics (fishery and energy resources) or political (just the natural power grab of a rising nation). Both explanations can be simultaneously true, but my interpretation is that this behavior is motivated by the logic of threat balancing. The balancing is internal (shifting resources within a state versus external which entails building alliances). The threat China is balancing against is the United States.
How is the United States a threat?
Two ways. One is the general American pursuit of political transformation of foreign lands. During the Cold War, US foreign policy was mostly, but not entirely, focused on the containment and deterrence of Soviet communism. Since 1989, the United States foreign policy has been mostly designed to do one of two things. The first is power projection. The second is the political transformation of other states. The original designs of the post WWII foreign policy were framed as a matter of national security. The dual policies of containment and determent were intended to prevent encroachment of the USSR into areas considered strategic to American security. But whereas during the Cold War the United States was interested in the domestic political arrangements of foreign states as a matter of halting communist expansion, post Cold War policy has largely been geared towards re-engineering the political arrangements of foreign states so to spread western values. China is balancing against the American assertion that “China is on the wrong side of history.” Attempts to nudge China towards liberalism has been embedded in trade agreements, hosting the Dalai Lama, and other soft power initiatives like its annual Human Rights report on China. From the regimes perspective, all of these measures are an attempt to curtail their control and weaken the communist party’s ability to govern.
The second perception of threat is the US pivot. The pivot is a series of diplomatic, economic, and military initiatives that renew American focus on the Pacific. It is generally packaged as the recognition that the future of politics will be decided in Asia and that to be relevant the US must deepen its presence in the area. Yet the pivot isn’t a regional policy as much as it is Chinese policy. From TPP to the lifting of the Vietnamese arms embargo, nearly all associated policies appear designed to contain China. Despite how often the United States assures China that the pivot is not about China but the region, China considers the pivot as a direct attempt of the United States to keep China from becoming a regional hegemon. Add the pivot associated policies with the already substantial US troop presence in the area and its not difficult to understand why China would feel the need to balance.
Americans would do well to consider that this is China’s back yard and that, starting with the Monroe doctrine, we do not tolerate foreign adventurism in our neighborhood. We view the American presence in the Far East as largely benign but, China views America as “a man with a criminal record “wandering just outside the gate of a family home.”” The South China Sea is their Caribbean and we shouldn’t be surprised when our meddling in that area is met with an aggressive response from China. We may be alarmed by the militarization of reefs and the obnoxious territorial claims of the nine dash nine line, but China’s behavior mimics the behavior of a threatened state.