CHINA’S CONFIDENCE CAN BE SHAKEN

Wall Street Journal on May 14, 2015, published an article by Michael Auslin on China expansionism in the South China Sea. The Pentagon has announced that it is considering deploying military ships and planes to patrol territory near China’s newly built islands in the South China Sea. Such a plan, if approved by the White House, would open a new phase in the struggle to shape Asia’s balance of power. Excerpts below:

Reshaping China’s international environment is a far more likely way to influence Beijing’s policy choices than is changing the nature of Chinese government or waiting for a democratic uprising in the country.

Already opposition to China’s expansionary behavior has caused Beijing to alternate between assertive action and attempts to calm its neighbors’ suspicions.

U.S., no less than China’s neighbors, has generally been too timid in responding to Beijing’s coercive behavior.

Such reticence may be changing thanks to Beijing’s land reclamation in the disputed Spratly Islands. Incoming U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris says Beijing is trying to build a “great wall of sand” in the Spratlys. Adm. Samuel Locklear, the outgoing Pacific Commander, has warned that Beijing’s island-building spree may give it “de facto” control over the waters around the Spratlys through new airstrips and port facilities.

In response, Washington has been gradually expanding its links with the Philippines and is close to finalizing an agreement that will allow U.S. forces to use up to eight bases on the islands on a rotational basis. Japan also is conducting naval drills with the Philippines, following its agreement to give 10 maritime patrol vessels to Manila, and has pledged to provide an unspecified number to Hanoi.

No one should be lulled into thinking that Beijing’s core policies will change anytime soon. Yet the fact that China feels it needs to try and allay suspicions at all shows that it is concerned about the growing response to its moves. Japan’s indications that it will continue to expand its role in regional security, possibly including joint sea or air patrols with U.S. forces in the South China Sea, is of particular concern to Beijing.

Washington must further maintain its pressure to send Beijing the message that the new constellation of opposition will not disappear just because China offers a few conciliatory messages. At the same time, Washington will have to make clear to other nations that they, too, cannot unnecessarily exacerbate tensions with China and expect stability in the regional security environment.

Pressing China to adopt liberal norms will always falter on the rocks of the Communist Party’s self-interest. Yet by reshaping the environment surrounding China, liberal states have a much better chance of curbing some of the policies that cause them to fear Beijing’s growing power and influence.

Mr. Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and a columnist for WSJ.com, is writing a book about risk in Asia.

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