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Russian, Chinese Expansionism Creates Uncertain Future in Foreign Relations

by Andrew Gripp, published

While it would be an overstatement to claim that Russia and China possess identical goals and interests -- Russia is focused on its western frontier with Europe while China has its sights set on the South China Sea off its eastern coastline -- the two regional powers have struck harmony on some matters of mutual importance.



China has signed a major natural gas deal with the energy behemoth and has largely succeeded at maintaining better diplomatic relations with Russia than it has with Japan.

Moreover, both countries have ratified several boundary disputes in the 1990s and 2000s, freeing Russia to devote its land-based military resources to the west and permitting China to hastily develop its naval capabilities. Also, since 2012, Russia and China have conducted joint military exercises on several occasions -- most recently in May 2014 when President Putin and President Xi Xinping oversaw war games simulations in the East China Sea, just off Japan's southwest coast.

China's military enhancements -- which parallel Russia's military modernization plan -- have come with a cost of nearly $200 billion a year to the annual defense budget.

In recent years, China has become a belligerent and aggressive force, claiming (absent any recognized legal justification) "absolute sovereignty" over roughly 90 percent of the South China Sea. Its infamous map of the region, which features 9 red dashes in the shape of a tongue, includes the much contested Spratly and Paracel Island groups, as well as other shipping lanes, reefs, and locations rich in fish, oil, and natural gas.

China has used bold and strong-arm tactics to secure some of these disputed territories, including the deployment of what Major General Zhang Zhaozhong calls the "cabbage strategy," which involves gradually forming protective layers of vessels around contested territories until they fall under Chinese control.

In 2012, Chinese vessels surrounded and laid claim to the Scarborough Shoal using this strategy, blocking Filipino ships from entering the reef that has served as a fertile fishing location and a site for cooperative international environmental research. When the U.S. intervened in June 2012 to negotiate a de-escalation, the Filipino ships backed down, but the Chinese ships did not.

This occupation set a precedent for future territory-grabs, including its expulsion of Filipino ships from the Second Thomas Shoal in March 2014.

China has also escalated tensions with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, which have been under Japanese control since the U.S. returned them to Japan in 1972. Hostilities nearly broke out in February 2013 when a Chinese warship locked its radar on a Japanese self-defense destroyer.

Chinese military leaders have been especially bellicose in their attitudes toward Japan and, by extension, the United States, given America's security pact with Japan since the end of World War II.

Air Force Colonel Dai Xu, for instance, has called for a short and decisive war against Japan, and other Chinese military leaders agree that the U.S. would "run like a rabbit" if China does attack Japanese territory.

After Lt. Gen. John Wissler, an American military commander stationed in Okinawa, renewed America's promise to join Japan in repelling a Chinese invasion of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in April 2014, a retired Chinese military commander writing for the Communist Party-controlled Global Times brusquely responded:

It has never happened in recent years that a US commander based in the Pacific division has made such presumptuous statements and implicitly declared China's PLA to be an enemy.   [...]   [T]he Chinese army is familiar with the military geography and the environment of the Diaoyu Islands. Once the islands become a battlefield, no defenders can survive there.   We hold the same view as Wissler that we wouldn't "even necessarily have to put somebody on that island until you had eliminated the threat." Please pass on this message to Japan that it should not act rashly.   Please do not make war threats at will and show respect to the Chinese army that once defeated the U.S. during the Korean War (1950-53).

Similarly, Chinese military leaders have threatened the U.S. if it intervenes on behalf of Taiwan, with which that United States also has strong diplomatic and military relations. Major General Zhu Chenghu has vowed to attack the U.S. with nuclear weapons if it comes to Taiwan's aid.

What explains this outbreak of aggressive Chinese expansionism?

One explanation lies in China's rapid economic and social development, in which a resource-hungry China is outgrowing its borders the same way a voracious adolescent teenager outgrows his old t-shirts.

Since 2010, China has been the greatest producer and consumer of energy -- energy it needs to fuel a burgeoning economy and a restless population: when President George W. Bush asked former Chinese leader Hu Jintao what kept him awake at night, Hu replied, "creating 25 million jobs a year."

Perhaps the most popular expression of this expansionism was articulated by Senior Colonel and National Defense University professor Lui Mingfu, whose 2010 book, titled The China Dream, has become a slogan of sorts for President Xi.

Colonel Lui anticipates that China will one day match America's gross domestic product and even attain the same income per capita. He warns that the U.S. will try to contain China's ascendance and argues that a strong military is a prerequisite for China's flourishing. He believes that while China may pursue a "peaceful rise," there may be a "conflictual rise" as well.

Lui strikes a more chauvinistic and hegemonic tone when he concludes, "To save itself, to save the world, China must prepare to become the (world's) helmsman."

This statement reveals a nationalistic fervor similar to that which animates Russian public and foreign policy.

Through its history, Chinese officials have referred its country as the Middle Kingdom -- a name rooted in the ancient belief that China stands in the center of the world and reflects a sometimes dormant, sometimes active air of cultural superiority and civilizational excellence (not unlike the concept of American exceptionalism).

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger coined the phrase "Middle Kingdom Syndrome" to designate this ethnocentric attitude.

In their aggression toward other countries and cultures, Chinese authorities have found support among some nationalistic youth. Just as Putin derives support from the Kremlin-supported, nationalistic youth group Nashi ("Ours!"), some fen qing ("angry youth") defend the heavy-handedness of the Chinese state, such as by creating patriotic videos endorsing the government's violent and "civilizing" campaign against Tibetan independence.

Anti-China protests have occurred across East Asia in recent years since the Tibetan uprising in 2008, including in the

Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, and -- most vociferously -- in Vietnam.

Chinese and Russian expansionism are certainly frustrating President Obama's diplomatic approach to global instability.

Despite getting Putin's support in removing Assad's chemical weapons from Syria, the State Department's "Russia reset" has not succeeded in getting Russia to help bring an end to the civil war in Syria, nor has this ploy convinced Putin that he can get what he wants through soft power. It is unclear what, if anything, the U.S. can do to halt Putin's lawless behavior.

Likewise, the increased attention to the Pacific region, including the "pivot to Asia," has resulted in diplomatic niceties and low-level successes, but has not calmed the tensions in the South China Sea, and China has not heeded the administration's call for the free navigation of these waters.

China, in a sharp rebuke to the administration's own "charm offensive" in Asia -- and undeterred by America's promise of an increased navy presence in the region -- defiantly planted an oil rig in contested waters just off Vietnam's coast shortly before a regional ASEAN summit meeting in May 2014.

While the causes of Russian and Chinese expansionism may be relatively simple to decipher, knowing how to manage Asia's rise is far from clear.

Photo Source: Reuters

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