The Storm Beneath the Calm: China’s Regional Relations in 2016

On the surface, 2015 came to a close in a moment of relative tranquility after a turbulent year for China’s neighborhood. But the calm is misleading: the optics of regional diplomacy have become increasingly detached from the reality of the underlying tensions; this risks obscuring deepening fault lines.

Meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the bilateral relationship was “coming out of a stalemate” that began more than three years ago with a dispute over a group of rocky islands in the East China Sea. In November, the pace of summit diplomacy quickened. In a first visit by a Chinese president in 10 years, Xi Jinping traveled to Vietnam, whose relationship with China had plunged to a new low last year after Beijing deployed a drilling rig to waters both countries claim in the South China Sea. He later attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila, which has sought international arbitration against China’s claims and actions in the South China Sea. At the East Asia Summit in Malaysia—whose claims also overlap with those of China’s—Li pledged to make “the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.”

The pleasantries gave the appearance of a region returning to relative calm. Japanese diplomats speak with relief about a bilateral relationship that “continues improving.” Observers in Vietnam and the Philippines wonder if China has launched another round of a “charm offensive.”

The recent rapprochement provides a welcome respite after a stormy year in which China constructed massive artificial islands with airstrips on contested reefs, provoking the U.S. to send military ships and aircraft to underline the legal principle that the new islands do not establish rights to restrict navigation. The rest of the region watched nervously, fearing it was about to become collateral damage in a struggle between superpowers.

Underneath the diplomatic pomp and circumstance, however, troubling undercurrents are developing. Faced with a China that is growing in economic might and military prowess, but whose soothing words have often been contradicted by actions (construction on the artificial islands has continued), its neighbors have embarked on a military buildup and sought closer security ties with Washington, even while greeting China’s outreach with outward enthusiasm.

Japan began to increase its military budget in 2014, for the first time in over a decade. It has reconfigured its defense orientation from deterrence of a Soviet invasion from the north to a “Dynamic Joint Defense Force” capable of defending or retaking the remote southwestern islands, reportedly stringing a line of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries across the East China Sea. Tokyo has also begun the greatest upgrade to the U.S.-Japan defense alliance in decades and stepped up assistance to Southeast Asian countries to build up their maritime security capacity. It has “reinterpreted” its constitution to partially lift a ban on “collective self-defense” so that the Japanese Self-Defense Force could come to the assistance of allies and friends in conflicts.

Vietnam has been expanding its submarine fleet to be outfitted with anti-ship and cruise missiles, in steps to modernize its military in order “not to defeat China but enough to give China a bloody nose” in the case of a conflict, as Ian Storey, a scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, puts it. Hanoi and Washington in June signed a Joint Vision Statement outlining expanded defense cooperation in 12 areas. The Obama administration has relaxed its restrictions on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis and announced U.S.$18 million worth of assistance to help the Vietnam Coast Guard acquire patrol boats, both modest but symbolically significant steps.

Manila has invited the U.S. navy to come back more than 20 years after pushing it out and is receiving growing military assistance, both in funding and equipment, from Washington. The first two of 12 new fighter jets built in South Korea landed in the Philippines on November 28, giving the Philippine air force a supersonic air-defense capability for the first time since decommissioning its Northrop F-5 Tiger jets in 2005.

Singapore, which is not a South China Sea claimant but sees stability and openness of the sea as of vital national interest, welcomed the deployment of a P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane from the U.S. on December 7 and announced a new, enhanced defense cooperation agreement with Washington the same day.

This is what the threshold of a regional arms race looks like, but it is easy to be lulled into complacency by superficial calm.

(AFP/Getty Images photo)

Filipino children form the words “China Out” on a beach on a remote Philippine-held island in the South China Sea during a week-long protest against Beijing’s claims in the disputed waterway, December 31, 2015.

China is over-reliant on summit diplomacy. In its top-down system, gestures by its leaders set the political tone that guides government agencies, think tanks, and state media. From the Chinese perspective, a leadership photo-op is frequently taken to indicate a reset in bilateral relations, but countries uncertain of Beijing’s ultimate intentions remain skeptical. Xi’s visit to Hanoi, though “a big deal, and perhaps even historic,” according to Vietnamese scholars Truong Minh Vu and Nguyen Thanh Trung, was “more symbolic than substantive.” It did little to assuage Vietnam’s underlying concerns and could prove politically damaging to the country’s leaders. Hanoi hedged by hosting Japan’s defense minister at the same time for discussions focusing on maritime security in the South China Sea, and by inviting the Japanese navy to visit the strategically important naval base at Cam Ranh Bay.

Bureaucrats at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East Asia’s only regional forum, also have a tendency to content themselves with the formalities and overlook the outcomes, celebrating photo-ops as substantive successes. Despite a lack of credible progress on negotiations over a code of conduct that would commit all parties to a binding and consensus-based behavioral norm in the South China Sea, the ASEAN summit in 2014 “recognized that the process of consultation between ASEAN and China [has] been as important as the substance of the [Code] itself.”

The growing detachment of diplomatic symbolism from the underlying relationship threatens to undermine the efficacy of diplomacy itself, as a tool to either manage differences or to signal intentions. Many regional states are losing confidence that China is sincere in seeking a peaceful and equitable resolution to sea disputes, in ASEAN’s ability to manage relations with China, and in their own ability to predict Beijing’s behavior. They resort to old-fashioned balancing, hedging, and deterrence through defense build-ups and bandwagoning with big powers. ASEAN, a frustrating bureaucracy but the region’s only self-governance body, is being hollowed out.

Complacency with superficial calm is also feeding a Chinese hardline narrative. It argues that, given the growing power asymmetry between China and its neighbors, and with the U.S. tied up by crises in other regions, China can dial tensions up and down, changing the status quo in its favor and conditioning regional countries to accept Chinese demands. Hardliners look at the apparent success of China’s cycle of angering its neighbors by advancing its territorial claims and then soothing them with words before once again advancing, and they miss the growing fear and anger on its southern flank.

Diplomacy is good, but if Beijing does not back up its words with actions, and if regional countries do not press for meaningful change in behavior and substantive progress on the code of conduct, the current period of relative calm, like many others before, will be a fleeting interlude between storms.