A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal tries to make sense of China’s big shift away from a hard power strategy, but doesn’t quite see everything that’s hiding around the corner. The article, by Andrew Browne, gets much of the story right:
A remarkable change appears to have come over China’s relations with its neighbors: The regional bully has turned benefactor.In recent months, intimidation has given way to offers of tens of billions of dollars of investment.An explosively charged territorial dispute with Vietnam has suddenly gone quiet. Relations with Japan, meanwhile, are looking up.To cap it all, Vice Premier Wang Yang has asserted that China’s broader foreign policy ambitions do not include trying to upend the U.S.-led global order, contradicting a belief that has been growing in U.S. foreign policy circles as China flexes its muscles in the region. America, he told a meeting in Chicago a few weeks ago, still “leads the world.”
Browne continues, noting that Xi’s economic plans have a clear strategic aim:
The scale of [Xi’s longterm] ambitions is vast. When Mr. Xi talks expansively of an “Asia-Pacific dream” he has in mind Chinese regional dominance that surpasses even what Imperial China managed to achieve at the height of its powers in the 18th century.To understand what that means in practical terms, just follow the money. Chinese treasure has been earmarked for regional container ports, industrial parks, high-speed railways that crisscross the Asian mainland, highways, energy pipelines and other infrastructure. Beijing has coined the term “comprehensive connectivity” to describe the effort.It’s debatable whether all the Chinese money will materialize as promised. But the strategic goal is clear: a networked Asia with China at its heart.It doesn’t stop there. Mr. Xi’s vision also embraces a gigantic free trade zone that will expand China’s market reach throughout the world’s fastest growing region. […]The big unanswered question in all this is what leadership role, if any, Mr. Xi foresees for the U.S. in the new arrangements for East Asia.
While he is right that Beijing is walking back some of its most aggressive rhetoric, he somewhat overstates its potential:
A more likely explanation for the conciliatory rhetoric is that China has come to the realization that its neighbors don’t wish to be bullied into accepting a revived Sinocentric order in their part of the world.Yet that seems to be precisely what “connectivity” and “whirlwind” diplomacy are intended to achieve through peaceful means. By the time China has hooked the region into its expanding economic grid, America’s position in the region will have shrunk without a shot being fired.
Where the piece doesn’t quite get the whole picture is that China’s neighbors know what Beijing is trying to do, and for the most part they have no intention of allowing it to establish a stealth hegemony. Plus, those neighbors are as aware as China is of the naval facts of life—without a blue water navy that can secure China’s trade routes for key resources like oil and challenge the U.S. fleet for Pacific dominance, America will remain the top strategic power in the region. Indeed, China likely knows that its neighbors know, and therefore that this strategy isn’t some kind of magic bullet.Nonetheless, China’s new stance works fine as an “announced” strategy. For commercial if not for grand strategy reasons, China needs to invest in ports and trade infrastructure. For both commercial and geopolitical reasons, it needs to turn down the temperature in East Asia.At the same time it wants nationalists back home to think that the government is still hard at work turning China into a superpower—without terrifying business leaders by seeming to embark on a crazy dash for power that will end in war.The new plan does all of the above. It advances Beijing’s commercial policy in the neighborhood, pacifies to some extent the grumblings of nationalists with the rhetoric it’s grounded in, and conveys a clear message that the thermostat has been turned down in Asia—and that China is in charge of the thermostat.