Malaysia, a country that usually maintains good relations with China, got a little taste a few days ago of Beijing’s “creeping assertiveness.” On June 1, a fleet of Chinese military aircraft, flying in a tactical formation, flew to within 60 nautical miles of eastern Malaysia, within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The Malaysian air force subsequently scrambled several of its fighter jets to intercept these aircraft.
This incident is only the latest in a long series of escalating and belligerent acts by the Chinese regime to press their claims in the South China Sea and elsewhere. It surely won’t be the last.
It’s hard to believe now, but it wasn’t too long ago that China was seen as an agent for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific. In the early years of the 21st century, Beijing was actively engaged in a regional “smile campaign” intended to demonstrate that it was a non-confrontational player dedicated solely to a “peaceful rise.” China sought to reassure its neighbors that it was a responsible and constructive partner, committed more or less to maintaining the regional status quo.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies noted in 2004 that China was willing to “shelve active political disputes” that could not be “reconciled immediately, so long as none of the other parties involved [disturbed] the status quo,” particularly the status of Taiwan; instead, China was ready to refocus “its energies on expanding trade and cooperation with all its neighbors.”
Nowhere perhaps was this “play-nice” strategy more evident than in China’s relations with the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). China was the first non-Southeast Asian state to sign to a Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with ASEAN. This agreement was followed up with the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Security and a “Plan for Action” agreement. China became an active participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the ARF Security Policy Conference (ASPC), and the ASEAN+3 meetings.
During the 2000s, China made a concerted effort not to let the South China Sea dispute become an international flashpoint. In 2002, Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to a joint “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which affirmed the intention of the signatories to peacefully resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes, and to exercise self-restraint in the South China Sea that would “complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability,” including refraining from further construction on then-uninhabited islands.
Flash forward 15 years or so. Under Xi Jinping, China has unleashed an aggressive course of action—the “China dream”—driven by nationalism and a sense of victimhood, enabled by growing economic and technological development, and stressing the “revitalization of the Chinese nation.” A key byproduct of this strategy is a much more assertive, even belligerent, foreign policy, one that doubles-down on bad behavior.
All of this is painfully familiar to most of us. Beijing has become ever more intransigent and bellicose in pressing its territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea. According to Beijing nowadays, there is no “dispute,” because China has “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea, plain and simple. It throws out specious arguments about early historical sightings of the Spratly Islands by Chinese fishermen, or discovering shards of Chinese pottery or coins on some of these islets. It then accuses other countries, such as the Philippines, of “bullying” China, and that the United States and other Western navies, by conducting freedom of navigation patrols (FONOPS) in the South China Sea, are operating in places they have no right to be. More recently, “indisputable sovereignty” has been used to justify China’s construction and subsequent militarization of artificial islands in the Spratlys.
Moreover, Beijing employs increasingly belligerent language when that nations are not being accommodating enough. A recent article in China’s state-owned English-language newspaper, the Global Times, harshly attacked Australia as being “too weak to be a worthy opponent of China,” adding that if the country dared “to interfere in a military conflict, for example, in the Taiwan Straits, its forces will be among the first to be hit.” In particular, Australia was “within range” of China’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and it “must not think it can hide from China if it provokes.”
What was Australia’s great crime? That it had the temerity to join the United States, France, and Japan in a series of naval exercises in the East China Sea.
Ironically, Australia had spent years trying to get on the good side of Beijing. In particular, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd touted the creation of an “Asia-Pacific Community” that would have greatly raised China’s regional profile.
Beginning in 2018, however, relations between the two countries soured over growing concerns that China was attempting to inhibit free speech in Australian universities and government, and especially in the Australian Chinese community. In addition, citing security concerns, Canberra banned Chinese companies such as Huawei from investing in such strategic sectors like Australia’s 5G networks. In retaliation, China has slapped more than $20 billion worth of trade bans and tariffs on Australian exports.
What Beijing fails to realize is that this aggressive behavior is only creating a more unified backlash. In particular, naval exercises in the region this year are expected to involve not only the United States and Australia, but also Canada, France, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia, India, and the Netherlands. In addition, the British Royal Navy is sending its Carrier Strike Group 21, led by the HMS Elizabeth aircraft carrier, on a seven-month voyage that will include FONOPS in the South China Sea.
Nothing has so focused anti-China sentiments as Beijing’s own ham-fisted actions. Its pugnaciousness has only unified U.S. public opinion against China; negative attitudes toward China have soared, and the share of Americans who perceive China as their greatest enemy has doubled in the past year. Europe, which for decades has tried to engage China for its economic benefits while also ignoring or downplaying its rising and increasingly far-flung aggressive conduct, has lately come to realize that China is a growing threat to the global stability and security. In the case of the Chinese regime’s bad behavior, the law of unintended consequences appears to be holding.
Richard A. Bitzinger is an independent international security analyst. He was previously a senior fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore, and he has held jobs in the U.S. government and at various think tanks. His research focuses on security and defense issues relating to the Asia-Pacific region, including the rise of China as a military power, and military modernization and arms proliferation in the region.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.