What are the Chinese up to? Why raise tensions as much as they have in the Pacific Basin? Beijing's recent declaration of new fishing rules in disputed territorial waters has raised the ire of maritime neighbors and the consternation of the United States. It follows on the heels of the recently declared air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, above disputed islands in the East China Sea, which led American B-52s from Guam to overfly the region -- as a challenge to China's declaration and as a statement in defense of Japan, which also claims these islands. In the face of American and Japanese military resolve, can China even defend its claim to the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) island chain? Or can China truly dominate the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea?
China's bark certainly seems bigger than its bite, as the saying goes. China is acting in both the East China Sea and the South China Sea from, in some respects, a weak position. Indeed, China's various ground-based and airborne early warning systems -- needed to defend the new ADIZ -- are either too far away or still in production, while Japan is further ahead with this type of platform, which has been part of its military for decades. China's naval logistics and long supply lines make formal occupation of islets in the Spratlys difficult to obtain and harder to maintain.
To be sure, with the exception of Japan, China's navy and coast guard can overpower any single local competitor. But China cannot overpower any combination of states that includes the United States. And any overt act that changes the status quo -- occupation of islands, military confrontation or, for that matter, the establishment of an air defense identification zone -- threatens to do just that: draw in the United States. Meanwhile, the Philippines has been vocal in calling for expanded U.S. naval and air assets in and around its archipelago. And Washington will soon shift one of its most modern aircraft carriers to a forward deployment in Japan.
But what if the Chinese regime merely wants to raise tensions with the United States for the sake of a domestic audience, while avoiding actual conflict with it? That is a risky proposition, but it does explain China's behavior. In fact, it explains China's actions across the whole Asia-Pacific region -- actions that garner explosive headlines but are in other ways somewhat benign. The Chinese have coast guard ships circling islands, and those ships occasionally push a Philippine or Vietnamese fishing boat around. It is mainly bluster and puff. In almost all cases the Chinese are not fundamentally altering strategic realities, for they cannot. Preponderant Chinese naval and air ability is not yet there. Unsurprisingly -- again, in most cases -- the United States is largely ignoring these Chinese actions. In other words, there is no demonstrable American naval buildup in the region.
What we are seeing, therefore, is mainly a managed set of confrontations that serve domestically in China to keep the nationalistic spirit at a high volume in order to reinforce the sense of rising Chinese power -- something particularly necessary for the leadership during a time of slowing economic growth. Huffing and puffing at sea also helps China shape bilateral discussions with neighboring maritime claimants from a position of greater strength, or at least lay the groundwork for later assertions of ownership by highlighting the inability of local powers to fully deny China's claims -- something China's neighbors obviously worry about. Furthermore, by having its navy and coast guard antagonize a country such as the Philippines -- not to mention Japan -- China shows its domestic audience that the regime is standing up to the United States, a treaty ally of both of these countries.