The evolution of China's defense posturing has accumulated in the past four months in a range of mulilateral trifles and strategic anxieties. There is a growing concern in Washington and among China's neighboring states that China is acing up its strategic resolve in the South Chinese, East Chinese and other adjacent Seas.
Ever since the Chinese showed off their initial capacity in shooting down an obsolete satellite with a missile back in 2007, the latent scare about the military intentions of the PLA have become the subject of much speculation.
Even though the Chinese PLA purports nothing but a ‘peaceful rise' and playesd the card of transparency by publishing its Defense White Paper again last May, other strategic Grand Actors are not convinced by Chinese statements.
In fact, a series of smaller incidents with the United States Navy, and more recently some provocative confrontations in the Philippine Sea and Vietnamese waters are doing more damage to China's credibility as a docile military actor. Senior Pentagon staffers are scratching their heads over the speed at which China is beefing up a range of military programs, and leveling up its maritime, space and cyber capacities.
Examples include the J20 Stealth Fighter prototype being tested close to the arrival of Defense Secretary Gates' visit to Beijing, a 2007 incident where a Song-class submarine infiltrated and surprised a U.S. naval carrier strike group on exercise in the South Pacific Sea, a Chinese patrol boat cutting the cables of a prospecting research ship near the disputed Paracel Islands and a similar incriminating incident on June 10 2011 occurred near the Spratly Islands when a Chinese fishing ship deliberately damaged equipment of a Vietnamese exploration vessel in the Exclusive Economic Zone.
Both the governments of Vietnam and the Philippines are seeking aid from the U.S. to defy Chinese strategic provocations. Especially at a time where Chinese military technological potential is visibly improving, the total defense budget increased a staggering 12,7 percent and the PLA Navy having unveiled its plan to buy and upgrade a former Ukrainian aircraft carrier and the existence of a "Cyber Blue Team" ready for 21st century electronic warfare, China is sending out the wrong message. Also, many strategic analysts are pointing to China's active pursuit of the means for effective "Anti-Area Access Denial" (A2/AD) capabilities, which find a crucial application in the PLA's pursued ‘Far Sea Defense' (yuangyang fangyu) strategy.
The Communist Party should not trick itself into self-indulgence due to its technological and military rise (cyber activities, informationized battle projects, space-guided missile components), but deflate intrusive naval activities in the East Chinese and South Chinese Seas, as well as engage in a commitment to non-intrusive cyber defense and observation. If those issues are not addressed in a way expected by other parties, then the Sino-American military-to-military dialogue could face serious setbacks. Even though the offered transparency of this Asian Dragon is imperfect or makeshift by Western norms, a new consensus needs to be found regarding the disputed areas in the Seas and disputed islands, where China is willing to make a tougher stand.
China should not waste the opportunity to regain a benevolent and non-threatening image in its (maritime) areas of influence - especially when it affects the regional strategic balance - as trustworthiness has sunk to a low probably comparable to China's awful diplomatic position in 1989. Further initiatives and the active decrease of inflammable ambiguities about missile defense capacities, naval and cyber technology to mitigate many anxieties about China's military might are duly required. Any more strategic friction could well provoke Vietnam, the Philippines or the U.S. to disengage with China regarding latent disputes and stimulate a willingness to bolder, armed action. Even in a climate where the U.S. cannot really afford to exert greater military presence in the Pacific Seas, it is in China's interest not to convey a sense of dominance over adjacent waters, nor to pursue brinkmanship there or in the cyber domain.
Nico Segers is a masters graduate from the University of Antwerp.
For further insights on naval tensions in the South China Sea, watch this interview with Ken Lieberthal from the Brookings Institution: