China's Territorial Ambition

Amid U.S. weakness, Beijing expands its regional claims.

Eight Chinese ships entered the territorial waters of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands on a single day last week, while 40 Chinese military planes flew nearby. China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported this as a response to Japanese nationalists trying to land on the disputed islands, though the Japanese Coast Guard prevented that. The next day, Xinhua claimed that the State Oceanic Administration "thwarted" the violation of Chinese sovereignty.

A week earlier and more than 4,000 kilometers away, the Indian military discovered that Chinese soldiers had camped 19 kilometers within Indian-controlled territory. The Indians recently reinforced positions in the area with bunkers, and in three "flag meetings" of local commanders the Chinese demanded that they be removed before they will pull back. In the meantime the Chinese are building a new road into the area.

These incidents are part of a wider pattern. In territorial disputes, Chinese forces are growing more assertive and using any excuse to change the status quo in their favor.

Last month Chinese began sending tourist charters to disputed islands in the South China Sea. On March 20, Chinese patrol boats set fire, perhaps inadvertently, to a Vietnamese fishing boat in the disputed area. Two days later, four Chinese navy ships conducted exercises around the James Shoal, rocks that are claimed by Malaysia and China. The rocks lie 80 kilometers off the Malaysian coast, and 1,800 kilometers from the Chinese mainland.

An aerial photo shows Chinese marine surveillance ships Haijian No. 49 (front) and Haijian No.50 cruising in the East China Sea.

After Tokyo recently revealed that it was forced to scramble fighters 306 times last year in response to Chinese planes approaching its airspace, the Chinese response was to blame Japan for raising tensions. Beijing always justifies its provocations as defending its sovereignty, which makes rational talks impossible.

All of this has sparked renewed debate over what is going on behind the high walls of Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound in Beijing. Sydney Morning Herald reporter John Garnaut recently wrote that Xi Jinping, installed as Communist Party supremo last year, is consolidating power the same way Deng Xiaoping did in 1979, when the Peoples Liberation Army was ordered to invade Vietnam. Conflict is a handy way to enforce discipline and allow the new leader to promote his own generals.

That theory may have some truth to it, but China's assertiveness predates Mr. Xi's elevation. The policy shift became apparent in 2009, when officials first referred to the South China Sea as a "core interest." Beijing began to revive dormant disputes with several of its neighbors at the same time. This led some China watchers to declare that Deng Xiaoping's maxim that the country should "hide our capabilities and bide our time" had been discarded.

The real significance of the year 2009 may not lie in China, however. The global financial crisis hurt the U.S. economy and undermined Chinese reformers who argued that China still had lessons to learn from America. It also cut global demand for Chinese products and caused a spike in unemployment, making a greater reliance on nationalism politically tempting.

There was also the inauguration of Barack Obama, a President determined to bring U.S. forces home from two wars and avoid other foreign entanglements. Beijing has taken advantage of superpower retreats in its neighborhood in the past. After the U.S. pullout from South Vietnam in 1973, the PLA invaded the Vietnamese-controlled Paracel Islands the following year. After the Soviets drew down their forces at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay naval base in 1984 and the U.S. left the Clark and Subic Bay bases in the Philippines in 1991, the PLA occupied nearby islands in the South China Sea.

In the long run Beijing usually does what it says it is going to do, although the execution may be concealed with deception. It also reads the words and actions of its adversaries carefully, and it will exploit weakness. Despite its rhetoric about a U.S. pivot to the Western Pacific, the Obama Administration continues to signal a lack of resolve to aid allies and prevent China from intimidating other countries in the region. Beijing's assertiveness is the result.