When foreign policy makers analyze a situation they must consider not only what has happened, but also what could happen. So imagine for a minute how Chinese leaders might have responded if Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg had made the following statement after the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan frigate:
“Regarding the role of China in this, it is not directly related to the dispute, so it would be better for China to accept the results of the United Nations investigation and leave the dispute to be sorted out in a multilateral setting. I believe that North Korea is playing with fire, and I hope that China doesn’t get burned.”
China’s leadership might interpret this as American grandstanding, but it is much more likely that they would view it as an aggressive and provocative statement. Moreover, in a tense strategic environment in which alliances could draw the United States and China into a conflict, such a statement could quickly escalate into a game of brinksmanship between two nuclear armed great powers.
It is all the more surprising, then, that China’s vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, made a strikingly similar statement on Wednesday. As tensions over the territorial and economic claims to the South China Sea have risen dangerously in the past few weeks, Mr. Cui warned the United States to keep out of the dispute. According to the New York Times, Mr. Cui went on to say that:
“Regarding the role of the United States in this, the United States is not a claimant state to the dispute… So it is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be sorted out between the claimant states… I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States.”
Tensions in the South China Sea and the sinking of the Cheonan are obviously two different situations. Nonetheless, both the timing and the content of the Vice Foreign Minister’s statement are quite peculiar. Beijing reiterated its commitment not to use force to solve the dispute late last week. However, it also chose to deploy its largest maritime patrol ship, the Haisun 31, and conduct maritime defense exercises in the disputed territory. Whether or not this was justified, given Vietnamese live-fire military drills and accusations that Chinese “fishing boats” destroyed Vietnamese oil and gas equipment, is unclear. What is clear is that China’s military capabilities, its economic weight, and its sheer size mean that it must tread lightly if it does not wish to validate the fears of its neighbors. So far, it is not succeeding.
The South China Sea is only one of several flashpoints in Sino-American relations. But it is a serious one. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared last July that the United States had a “national interest” in freedom of navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea. Against this background Mr. Cui’s statement seems needlessly provocative. While it is highly unlikely that the United States would risk an armed conflict with China, negative perceptions of China’s military ambitions can increase pressure on policy makers to “deter conflict” with Beijing. This sets the stage for a classic security dilemma. If China’s leadership is truly committed to a “peaceful rise” they should take more care to watch what they say.
— Jordan D’Amato