Is China being stupid? Or is it being really clever? That in a nutshell is the foreign policy debate over Beijing’s seemingly concerted effort to provoke its neighbours. The case that China is being stupid is easy to make. In recent weeks Beijing has picked simultaneous fights with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan. It moved an oil rig near Chinese-controlled islands claimed by Hanoi, triggering anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam in which four people died. This week a Chinese fishing boat, part of a large flotilla around the rig, was accused of sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat.
Prodding at Manila’s maritime claims – whether by building artificial islands or seeking to control fishing grounds – has also turned the Philippines against China. After kicking the Americans out of the Subic Bay naval base in 1992, Manila has now asked them to come back. During President Barack Obama’s recent swing through Asia, it signed an agreement to allow US ships and aircraft to use its bases.
China has also antagonised Japan. By flooding disputed areas in the East China Sea with aircraft and boats, it is challenging Japan’s administrative control of the disputed Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu by Beijing. That has given Shinzo Abe, the rightwing prime minister, all the excuse he needs to press for a reinterpretation of Japan’s pacifist constitution. Mr Abe wants Japan to be able to fight in defence of its allies. Japan’s more assertive stance, far from troubling its neighbours, has been welcomed by many. Tokyo is supplying the Philippines with coastguard boats and has promised to do the same for Vietnam. In short, China appears to have scored an own goal by driving its neighbours into each other’s arms. All trace of China’s smile diplomacy has vanished.
Brad Glosserman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies finds it “inexplicable” that Beijing would stir up such trouble. Why would it do that, he asks in The National Interest magazine, when it faces so many potentially explosive economic and social problems at home? Mr Glosserman thinks Deng Xiaoping, who said China should “hide its brightness, nourish obscurity”, would be spinning in his grave. But Deng’s exhortation implied that China should bide its time, not that it should bury its ambition for all eternity.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at Australian National University, has an alternative view. He argues that China’s manoeuvres should come as no surprise. After all, Xi Jinping, its increasingly assured president, has called for a “new model of great power relations”. That means it wants to be treated not as a US subordinate but as an equal, at least in the western Pacific. “These things are inherently zero-sum, so for China to have more power and influence, America must have less,” he writes in The Interpreter, a blog run by Australia’s Lowy Institute. To bring that about means undermining US authority by picking small, but winnable, fights.
This is not an immovable object and an unstoppable force. The game is asymmetric – as indeed are China’s military capabilities. (It cannot match US aircraft carriers but it may be able to sink them with missiles.) To preserve the status quo, the US needs to prevent every one of China’s moves, something it has been unable to do. China needs merely to pick a few small battles that it knows the US has no wish to fight. An air defence identification zone here. An oil rig there. Of course, Mr Obama could draw a red line. But, as he found out in Syria, red lines can be tricky.
Bit by bit, then, Beijing is creating new facts on the ground, or rather in the sea and in the air. With each new incident, it is throwing down the gauntlet. Is it worth fighting for a Vietnamese fishing boat? Thought not. How about a submerged Philippine reef? An uninhabited island? In the short term, such tactics may well prod neighbours to stick together or cling ever closer to US skirts. But if China is changing regional perceptions, and realities, that may not matter. There is talk, for example, of a more united stance by members of the Association of South East Asian Nations. For now it is just that. Talk. Asean is divided between countries that have disputes with China – the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam among them – and ones that do not, including Thailand and Cambodia. Concerted action looks a long way off.
Prof White wrote a book with the self-explanatory title The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power. The US, he argues, has three possible responses to Beijing’s challenge. It can withdraw from Asia (highly unlikely and unnecessary, even from Beijing’s perspective); it can seek to maintain its primacy; or it can compromise. The choice is between “containment” and “appeasement”, two words loaded with negative connotations.
China is seeking to prove to its neighbours that containment cannot work and that the US cannot be relied upon to defend them. If it can do so, they and Washington will have to acknowledge that the status quo is untenable. It is a dangerous strategy. It is also a clever one.
中国还通过建造人工岛或寻求控制渔场来压制菲律宾的海上领土主张，这也将菲方推到了中国的对立面。菲律宾1992年将美国人赶出苏比克湾(Subic Bay)海军基地，如今却请求美国人回来。在美国总统巴拉克?奥巴马(Barack Obama)近期巡访亚洲期间，菲律宾与美国签署了协议，允许美方舰船和飞机使用该国的基地。
中国还与日本对抗。它派遣大量飞机和船只进入东中国海争议区域，挑战日本对主权有争议的尖阁诸岛（Senkaku Islands，中国称钓鱼岛及其附属岛屿）的管控。这为右翼首相安倍晋三(Shinzo Abe)推动重新解读日本和平宪法提供了他所需的一切借口。安倍希望日本有权为防卫盟国而战。日本更为强硬的立场不仅没有引起邻国不安，反而受到不少国家欢迎。日本政府向菲律宾提供海岸警卫队巡逻艇，并承诺也向越南提供巡逻艇。中国似乎踢进了一记乌龙球，让邻国彼此团结起来。中国“微笑外交”的痕迹已荡然无存。
战略与国际研究中心(Center for Strategic and International Studies)的布拉德?格洛瑟曼(Brad Glosserman)认为，中国挑起这么大的麻烦是“无法解释”的。他在《国家利益》(The National Interest)杂志中问道：既然中国国内面临诸多可能引起动荡的经济和社会问题，它为何还要这样做？格洛瑟曼认为，曾经说中国应该“韬光养晦”的邓小平恐怕会在坟墓里急得直打滚。但邓小平的告诫是在暗示中国应该等待时机，而不是一直将雄心埋没下去。
澳大利亚国立大学(Australian National University)战略研究学教授休?怀特(Hugh White)持不同看法。他提出，中国的举动应该说并不意外。毕竟，愈发自信的中国国家主席习近平已呼吁建立“新型大国关系”。这意味着，中国不希望自己被视为低美国一等的国家，而是希望被视为与美国平起平坐的国家，至少在西太平洋是如此。怀特在澳大利洛伊国际政策研究所(Lowy Institute)主办的博客“解读者”(The Interpreter)中写道：“这些事情本来就是零和博弈，因此如果中国要拥有更大的权力和影响力，美国就必须相应地让出。”为了达到这一目的，就要挑起小规模、但赢得下的冲突，削弱美国的权威。
就这样，中国正在一点点地制造新的既成事实（facts on the ground，更确切地说，是facts in the sea and in the air，即在海上和空中的既成事实）。每个新事件都是它发出的挑战。为一艘越南渔船卷入冲突值得吗？恐怕不值得。一座菲律宾暗礁呢？一座无人居住的岛屿呢？短期内，此类策略很可能促使众邻国团结起来、或是比以往更紧密地抱紧美国。但如果说中国正在改变地区的看法和现实，那么上述结果可能也无足轻重。举例来说，有言论称，东盟(ASEAN)成员国将采取更为团结的立场。但目前而言，这也不过是一种言论而已。东盟内部分为两派，一派是与中国有纠纷的国家，包括菲律宾、印尼和越南，一派是与中国没有纠纷的国家，包括泰国和柬埔寨。协同行动似乎遥遥无期。
怀特教授写过一本名为《中国抉择：我们为何应当分享权力》(China Choice: Why We Should Share Power)的书，书名的含义不言自明。他认为，面对中国的挑战，美国有三种可选对策。第一，撤出亚洲（既不可能又无必要，即使从中方的角度看也是如此）。第二，设法维持自己的主导地位。第三，妥协。美国将在“遏制”和“绥靖”之间做出选择，这两个词均充满了消极的暗示。