Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and to some extent throughout the Western Pacific, are exhibiting greater assertiveness to match its’s rising military clout. As its military power has expanded, China’s behavior has become noticeably more assertive, if not aggressive, in such locales as the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea. In the East China Sea, Beijing is contesting Japan’s control of the Senkaku islands and pressing its own claim to that territory. In addition to national pride, the China’s pressure reflects a desire to control extensive fishing resources and probable oil and mineral wealth in the waters surrounding the uninhabited Senkakus. The Japanese government has refused to budge on the territorial dispute and is increasingly worried about the extent of Chinese military power in that area. Beijing’s belligerence is even more evident in the Taiwan Strait. In addition to its own accelerated military activities in the Taiwan Strait, China is reacting with more intense hostility to the presence of naval vessels from any other country in those waters. Signs of a more assertive Chinese policy in the South China Sea also are becoming more numerous. China has long made extensive territorial claims in that body of water, but in recent years Beijing has built up several small reefs and islets there and established a naval and air presence. In several cases, the expansion has included the construction of military airstrips. Significant obstacles still remain before China can become the dominant military power in the Western Pacific. Key US allies in East Asia, especially Japan, seem to be increasingly uneasy about Beijing’s behavior. Despite such obstacles, China’s military capabilities in the Western Pacific are growing rapidly, and Beijing’s policy ambitions appear to be expanding at a pace to match or exceed those capabilities.

The balance of power in the Indian Ocean is undergoing a significant change as countries from outside the region begin to establish a permanent presence there. In the past 10 years, the biggest change has been the sharp escalation in China’s naval activities in the northern Indian Ocean, including through its hydrographic surveys in the exclusive economic zones of littoral states, growing deployment of submarines and unmanned underwater drones, and establishment of its first overseas military facility in Djibouti. What China seeks is the pursuit of national self-interest through persistent and consistent actions to become the dominant state in the Indo-Pacific. There are three reasons.

  1. First, the fundamental shift in the world’s centre of gravity from the Atlantic–Mediterranean region to the Indo-Pacific region has occurred faster than the West had planned for. China is the central actor in this drama, but ASEAN, India and others have also hastened the process.
  2. Second, expectations from a decade ago that the balance of power between China and the United States would likely remain decisively in America’s favour at least for the first half of this century are being proved wrong. China has not only demonstrated the determination to challenge American power in the Indo-Pacific, but it is building the capacity to neutralise America’s naval superiority in the Western Pacific. It is unlikely that China can, any longer, be confined within the first and second island chains in the Pacific.
  3. Third, it is building a parallel universe in trade, technology and finance that will selectively reduce its vulnerabilities to American hegemony. China’s international behaviour in the year of Covid-19 gives legitimate cause for concern to the peripheral and proximate states of the Indo-Pacific.

China speaks of the ‘community of the shared future for mankind’, and ‘win–win cooperation’; it plays balance-of-power politics and acts in ways that take advantage of others in adversity. China’s aim is to establish its supremacy in areas of productive technology, trade networks and financing options in ways that shut out competition. The Belt and Road Initiative is creating a Sino-centric system of specifications, standards, norms and regulations that will favour China’s technology and services to the exclusion of others. China aims to ensure that the national systems in the Indo-Pacific region are fully oriented towards the consumption of Chinese technology and services and are in sync with China’s strategic interests and policies. Digital dependencies are integral to this objective. Huawei, 5G and fibre-optic networks are some of the ways that China is rewiring the region to its long-term benefit. In the Chinese version of hegemony, so long as its industry and services enjoy supremacy in the Indo-Pacific and thus ensure the prosperity and wellbeing of the Chinese people, China is content to provide the public goods and financing for the region’s benefit as a sugar-coated pill. The other facet of China’s potential hegemony is the idea that it is the region’s responsibility to accept and respect what China calls its ‘core’ concerns and interests. These are flexible and change according to the situation, but are always non-negotiable. What is ‘core’ will always be defined by China. The definition has expanded beyond issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity to cover economic, social and cultural issues, and even the persona of the Chinese leader. Those who don’t fall in line are apt to be taught a ‘lesson’.

Many in the region look upon the US as a resident power, whose benign presence has been helpful to the region’s stability and growth. China itself has benefited from the American presence, not least in securing the capital and technology that has helped in its national rejuvenation. If China is committed, as it claims, to uphold the principle of peace and stability and is ready to practice its diplomatic philosophy of affinity, sincerity and inclusiveness, it should desist from tilting at windmills and demonstrate this diplomatic philosophy in deeds. China could begin by winding down the aggression it has displayed against its neighbours by unilaterally altering the status quo, and join the open discussion on the future of the Indo Pacific Region.

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