Beware the dragon: China sets sights on regional dominance

Beware the dragon: China sets sights on regional dominance

It is time for analysts and scholars to view China as an expansionist rising power. Spurred by a wave of ambitious new leaders, including Xi Jinping, a spike in Chinese nationalism, and favorable regional geopolitical trends, Beijing is seeking to influence the regional order in an effort to establish its dominance throughout Asia. A guest post by Dr. Brad Nelson, president of the Center for World Conflict and Peace.

Trouble in the South China Sea

Although commentators have sometimes claimed that China’s rise can be a peaceful one, recent events suggest otherwise. Beijing is embarking on an increasingly aggressive campaign to assert its military and economic dominance in the region.

In the last few years, it has placed an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea, ruffling the feathers of Japan and South Korea. It has aggressively approached Vietnamese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea (SCS), ramming them and spraying them with water cannons.

China has also created what the US military has called “sand castles”; artificially constructed mini-islands in the SCS which now host lighthouses and airstrips. It has leveraged its influence over allies Cambodia and Laos to engender divisions within ASEAN, thereby neutering the bloc’s ability to address the territorial issues in the SCS. Beijing has also stubbornly refused multilateral attempts to broker a solution, even going so far as to avoid cooperating with the ongoing international court proceedings investigating the validity of China’s nine-dash line in the SCS.

Even more troubling, arguably, is China’s overall attempt to create a parallel order in Asia – one in which it is the primary leader in trade, finance, and a raft of new regional institutions and agreements. And there’s no sign that China might slow its campaign toward regional hegemony.

Indeed, just in the last month, China has moved long-range surface-to-air missiles and radars to islands in the SCS. These acts raise the stakes in the SCS. It gives China an improved capacity to enforce its claims to the entire SCS.  It also raises the specter that, if not punished or condemned, China will likely continue to upgrade its military presence in the SCS.

Chinese Motives

It could be argued that China is simply responding to recent American freedom of navigation operations in the SCS – America’s attempts, it seems, to show Beijing that it wants to keep the seas open and that it is still interested in maintaining its naval dominance in Asia. In a narrow sense, this may be true. But when we view these events in a broader context, we can soon see that there is more going on here.

First, there’s a rising sense of confidence among Chinese leaders and citizens. They see their nation on the precipice of superpower status and are ready to seize the moment. Not surprisingly, therefore, they are reluctant to take a back seat to the US – or any other country – on the regional and world stages.

This trend has been particularly apparent since the 2008 financial crisis, which the Chinese weathered much better than their counterparts in the West. From their perspective, Western institutions and systems are not as successful or durable as the US and Europeans have long claimed. Furthermore, America’s costly wars of the 2000s, the consequences of which are still being felt today, demonstrate, in Beijing’s eyes at least, that US leaders and their policies are driving America into the ground. If anything, then, China’s approach to politics, economics and foreign relations have been validated by world events.

A second major factor is the geopolitical dynamics at work. China is expanding its national interests in line with its ever-growing material capabilities. Put simply, as China has become more powerful, it has defined its national interests more broadly, moving from an inward-looking nation focused on internal cohesion and stability, to a power that seeks to dominate its backyard.

Additionally, China senses opportunities to expand regionally, both in terms of military expansion and political influence over its neighbors. In short, China recognizes a power vacuum in Asia and is very willing to exploit it. Beijing is well aware that the US is distracted and bogged down in the Middle East, fighting never-ending wars against despots and terrorists.

It doesn’t look like the US will be able to turn its full attention to Asia, as part of its so-called ‘Asia Pivot’, anytime soon. China, in all likelihood, has correctly read this situation, especially once the so-called Asia hands, like Hillary Clinton, Tom Donilon and Timothy Geithner, left the administration and were replaced by officials who were interested in and carried portfolios on Europe and the Middle East.

In addition, Obama’s rebalance, or pivot, has probably come too late. For instance, the US Navy will complete its shift in assets to Asia by 2020; but by then, the SCS could, as John Mearsheimer warned, be a Chinese lake. If so, from there, China could embark on heading toward the Indian Ocean and beyond, beginning in earnest plans to squeeze the movement of the US into and throughout the region.

Economic Risks

Of course, there is an economic angle to consider here as well. In particular, the commercial stakes of China’s moves in the SCS are huge. As much as 40 percent of the world’s trade passes through the SCS.

The prospect of instability or outright violence among parties in Southeast Asia ups the risk to investors in the region. It can create further uncertainty about the Chinese economy, already stuttering amid slumping growth, stock market woes, debt issues, and so on.

And because of concerns about Chinese regional aggression and aspirations, we may also find greater support for Western-led economic initiatives, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), throughout Asia in the coming years; perhaps even triggering fence-sitters like Indonesia and India to consider linking itself more tightly to the West.

For Indonesia — which is not technically a claimant in the various SCS disputes, though it does control the Natuna Islands, whose waters overlap with China’s nine-dash line — it is not a surprise that it is now strongly considering joining the TPP. More countries in the region may follow suit, though that would do little to quell the ongoing unrest and risks that a rising China is likely to bring with it.


Dr. Brad Nelson is an adjunct professor of political science at Saint Xavier University and co-founder and president of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization. He has a PhD in political science from The Ohio State University and an MA in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia. Dr. Nelson‘s work has been published by The Diplomat, Strategic Review, Global Asia, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. His research focuses on Asian security affairs, global terrorism, and US foreign policy.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.