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Professor Victor D. Cha
Professor Victor D. Cha
The signing ceremony of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing on June 29, 2015. The AIIB was created to fund roads, mobile phone towers, and other infrastructure needs in poorer Asian countries.
The signing ceremony of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing on June 29, 2015. The AIIB was created to fund roads, mobile phone towers, and other infrastructure needs in poorer Asian countries.
(UN Dispatch Photo)

China’s Passive-Aggressive Strategy
Competition Between the United States and China Seems Inevitable, but It Doesn’t Have to Lead to War

In Asia today we see a region of incredible economic potential, high growth, growing trade interdependence, regional interaction, and more. Yet as former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan wrote late last year, “The supposed ‘Asian century’ is being thwarted by a paradox: deep economic interdependence has done nothing to alleviate strategic mistrust.” 

In fact, since at least 1993, some experts have been saying the region was “ripe for rivalry,” a phrase popularized by Princeton University Professor Aaron Friedberg.  No end of books and articles point to Asia as the next region for great power conflict. Asia is still hampered by long-standing security tensions, nationalism, power rivalries, territorial disputes, historic animosities, arms buildups, conflicting energy needs, and a lack of effective security institutions—in other words, it is a field of powder kegs in search of a spark.

Yet despite occasional flare-ups, no major conflicts have erupted. Instead, a different kind of competition has emerged between China and the United States. Rather than being destined for war, this contest is much more subtle. One important reason is China’s adoption of what can almost be described as a passive-aggressive strategy. Regional power is still the issue, but it is power refracted through the prisms of both legitimacy and creating new facts on the ground.

China is not confronting the United States head-to-head but rather challenging the perception of the United States as a reliable partner for others in the region. China is not asserting its own leadership. On the contrary, it wants to continue free riding off US leadership while at the same time making sure all in the region know that the weaknesses in the US economy and the US political system mean it cannot be a legitimate, reliable guarantor of security over the long haul.

The strategy does not involve bullying US allies (too much). Instead, it is built on a hope that if the United States fails to deliver on regional allies’ expectations, China will become the default partner for countries in Asia—a fait accompli.

Elements of this passive-aggressive approach are at work today. This year, China created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral development bank intended to finance infrastructure projects in the region and seen as a rival to the US-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. The failure of the United States to reform the IMF in a way that would provide more of a voice for China is portrayed as one more example of US obstinacy while the AIIB is portrayed as a commonsense alternative. US allies in the region and around the world have rushed to join the new bank.

China’s activities in the South and East China Seas typically involve probing disputed waters and pulling back when needed. This increases the demand by some for an increased US presence in the region, but US credibility is damaged when its response fails to meet local expectations. In particular, the Chinese know that the atolls and sandbars they claim in the South China Sea are not core national security concerns for the United States, so China can simultaneously expand its influence and convey US unreliability.

Adding to the passive-aggressive agenda, America’s decades-long reluctance to join the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) reduces its options in this territorial water dispute, highlights an American distaste for treaties, and gives China (a 1996 UNCLOS signatory) an opportunity to act as the bigger supporter of international law even as it tries to redraw the map.

Along these lines, supporters of more-effective global governance can take some comfort that China is actually operating within—rather than railing against—an international order established by the United States and its allies 70 years ago. The AIIB is modeled after the existing international financial institutions and is hiring staff directly from those bodies. UNCLOS is supported by 167 of the United Nations’ 193 member states. Chinese sophistication about and involvement in a wide variety of multilateral forums continues to grow.

So how can the United States respond to a Chinese strategy marked not by military provocation but by passive-aggressive actions designed to undermine confidence in the United States? Increased transparency in the US-China relationship with more military exchanges and an institutionalization of practices around hot-button issues, like those from the US-Soviet Cold War era, could help. But in a larger sense, US legitimacy and reliability in the region will be judged not by China but by American allies. The United States must set reasonable expectations and communicate these clearly to its partners. In the end, the United States must recognize the game being played and reduce opportunities for China, or any other power, to reduce American credibility or outplay US diplomacy in international arenas.

Competition between the United States and China, on a wide variety of fronts, seems inevitable, but it doesn’t have to lead to war. If strategically managed, it could, in fact, lead to a more diverse and vibrant international system.

Professor Victor D. Cha is director of Asian studies and holds the D.S. Song Chair in the Department of Government and School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. In 2009, he was named senior adviser and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He also served in the White House from 2004 to 2007 as director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council. 

— Victor D. Cha
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