Things are getting dicey in the Asian Game of Thrones. Over the weekend, China summoned and dressed down a U.S. diplomat in an escalating war of words over the South China Sea:
The Foreign Ministry said on its website late Saturday that it summoned the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Beijing, Robert Wang, to present “strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition” to a U.S. statement on Friday. On Friday, the U.S. said China’s recent decision to establish a military garrison in the South China Sea and elevate the administrative status of an island outpost in waters claimed by China, the Philippines and others risked further inflaming tension there.
It’s not easy to figure out whether this is a pro forma protest or something more serious—and it’s possible that China’s diplomats are as confused as the rest of us. When actions are taken by any country that infringe or appear to infringe China’s territorial claims, the foreign ministry must protest strongly, or it’s a sign that China doesn’t take its own claims seriously. Use it or lose it is an important maxim in disputes of this kind. So this could just be diplomatic boilerplate, a matter of routine.But things get complicated quickly. Typically, the foreign ministry in China is less hawkish that some other ministries and bureaus. (It’s the same in the U.S., where the State Department is sometimes seen as pathetically eager to negotiate and compromise.) This isn’t because striped-pants cookie pushers are naturally craven; it’s because diplomats often see the big picture. The Chinese diplomats, who interact with their U.S. and ASEAN counterparts all the time and have often been educated abroad, probably understand more clearly than some of their more insular colleagues in other parts of the government just how counterproductive a tough policy in the South China Sea can be.If that is what’s happening here, it is likely that the diplomatic protests and rebukes are intended for two audiences: the foreigners do need to be reminded that China seriously asserts these claims, and the generals and the hawks back home need to see that the foreign ministry isn’t full of a bunch of panty-waist pushovers bent on crawling to arrogant foreigners.That’s one interpretation of what’s happening. The other is that the foreign ministry really means what it says and that China intends to keep pushing, hard, on this issue. But whether the foreign ministry is just going through the motions or whether its protests are part of a coordinated, government-wide shift toward a tougher policy is not clear. More data points are needed, and the one thing we can be sure of is that we will get them.Chinese intentions can be hard to read. Many foreign diplomats and observers worry that the Chinese military and civilian policymaking processes aren’t connected. The military does what it does and the foreign ministry does what it does. In China, these two streams of policy making meet—if they meet at all—only at the level of very, very senior officials. Western diplomats say there is no counterpart in China to the kind of interagency process in the U.S., through which State, the Pentagon, Treasury and other interested departments start hammering out joint policy way below the top level.Making things even more complicated, different parts of China’s governing apparatus can be under the influence of different political factions, so that the struggle over, for example, how assertive china should be in the South China Sea, is “really” a struggle between two different Chinese political clans. In this case, the hardliners could try to provoke incidents that set off nationalist feelings inside the country, and create “facts on the ground”—like new municipal governments in disputed territories and new military deployments—that force the moderates to go along.Carried to the extreme, this is what happened in Japan in the 1930s, when hardliners in the military instigated the war with China by a succession of bold moves that weren’t cleared through the civilian cabinet.If that is what’s happening, it is deeply frustrating as well as dangerous. The diplomats the U.S. and the ASEAN countries speak with may not have the ability to change Chinese military behavior. If true, and if the military continues to believe that raising the temperature on the South China Sea issue is a winning issue domestically, things could get very ugly with surprising speed.Update: And things get uglier. The war of words has now hit the Chinese media, with the state-run People’s Daily telling America to “shut up” over the South China Sea.