SHANGHAI — A Chinese military expert is explaining to a conference here what he sees as the benign inevitability of Beijing’s rising power in the Pacific. “You should trust China,” he says cheerily. “In 10 years, we will be much stronger, and you will feel safer.”
This Chinese prediction did not appear to reassure most of the several dozen European and American experts gathered for discussions last weekend. Instead, there was a consensus, even among most of the Chinese participants, that Beijing’s growing military power has worried its neighbors and led to friction with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam over disputed islands and maritime rights.
“You think we are a bully,” conceded the Chinese military expert. “We think we are a victim.” But nobody in the room disagreed about the reality that tensions in the Pacific are rising — and that China and its neighbors cannot seem to find a way out. Which leaves the United States awkwardly in between, trying to support traditional allies such as Japan, without encouraging them to take reckless moves.
It is a sign of the times that delegates here talked openly about the danger of war in the Pacific. That’s a big change from the tone of similar gatherings just a few years ago, when Chinese officials often tried to reassure foreign experts that a rising China wasn’t on a collision course with the U.S. or regional powers. Now, in the East and South China seas, the collision seems all too possible.
Just two weeks ago, U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell warned at a conference in San Diego that China had been training for a “short, sharp war” to assert primacy over islands claimed by Japan as the Senkaku and by China as the Diaoyu. “I do not know how Chinese intentions could be more transparent,” he said, noting that Beijing’s talk of “protection of maritime rights” was actually “a Chinese euphemism for the coerced seizure of coastal rights of China’s neighbors.”
This is the Asian real-world backdrop for U.S. debates over military spending. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in Washington Monday that the Pentagon “will continue to shift its operational focus and forces to the Asia-Pacific.” But will allies such as Japan and the Philippines be bolstered by such talk at a time when the U.S. is sharply cutting troops and warplanes — and will potential adversaries such as China be deterred?
The changing political-military map in Asia formed the context for last weekend’s meeting of the Stockholm China Forum, an annual event sponsored by the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (of which I’m a trustee). The not-for-attribution discussions were surprisingly frank, on all sides. But they dispelled, at least for me, the hope that China will continue deferring to a powerful U.S. Instead, we’re clearly entering a period of greater Chinese assertiveness, especially in maritime issues.
The Shanghai discussions also highlighted what’s ahead for the United States in what strategists see as its role as “offshore balancer” of Chinese power. America is committed by treaty to defend Japanese administrative control in the Senkaku Islands; the U.S. military has plans to defeat any Chinese “short, sharp war” there. But the U.S. doesn’t want to get dragged into war over a few crags of rock, either, so Washington is also urging caution to Tokyo.
The Senkaku situation is tense because Chinese coast guard vessels and planes shadow the islands every day. This harassment has settled into a pattern whose very predictability is one of the few stable elements in the dispute. But given that no diplomatic resolution is in sight, Beijing and Tokyo need channels for crisis communication — lest Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s analogy last month to the run-up to World War I prove true.
In the South China Sea, China’s ambitions involve what it calls the “nine-dash line,” which vaguely asserts Chinese maritime claims almost to the coasts of Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. This line has no legal foundation, in America’s view, and even the Chinese don’t define just what the line represents. The Philippine government has filed an international arbitration claim challenging the nine-dash demarcation, so perhaps legal limits will be placed on China’s maritime expansion.
When Chinese officials meet at international conferences such as the one in Shanghai, they often talk about “win-win cooperation.” It’s a soothing concept, and it has become the elevator music of international meetings. But looking at the Pacific region, it’s hard to see any such spirit of compromise at work.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.