From mutual criticism during the just-closed 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue, to the second 'unsafe' intercept by Chinese fighters of American spy planes in less than a month, the tensions caused by the maritime dispute in the East and South China Seas are deepeening.
Even extra-regional actors are taking a neater stance over these issues. In October, an EU spokesperson expressed support expressed support for American FONOPs and during the Dialogue the French Minister of Defense called for greater naval presence in the region. It is thus natural that China-watchers, both in government and in the academic world, pay great attention to every Chinese move in the region. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Chinese Coast Guard are two of the most important 'persons of interest' for those who try to understand China's intentions in those waters.
Yet, while it makes sense for officials from PACOM and other regional navies to focus almost exclusively on the PLAN in the Asian theatre, others should broaden their horizon to see if and how it is possible to find a role for the PLAN — and indeed the other components of the PLA — within China's increasingly global foreign policy.
David Shambaugh's analysis that China is still a 'partial' military power, in comparison with the US, still holds true. However, the PLAN has been steaming in the Gulf of Aden for almost eight years, during which it has overcome important logistic challenges and expanded its role from rather symbolic deterrence against pirates to the establishment of a rather solid 'military diplomacy' around Africa and Europe. Now it is building up its role as savior of the Chinese nationals that have to flee from unstable areas.
The 'multi-functional logistic facilities' that China is now building in the strategically located African country of Djibouti, coupled with institutions like the newly established Overseas Operation Office and the legal framework evidenced in the December 2015's national security and counter-terrorism laws, will be the corner stone of the Chinese military presence outside Asia, made of ground, maritime and air forces. While today's challenge is in Asia and it looks relatively easy to divide the 'good' from the 'bad' or, in international relations jargon, the 'status quo' powers from 'revisionist', in the future such a distinction will become much harder to make.
As I have already pointed out elsewhere, fighting terrorism and protecting its nationals and interests abroad have become top priorities of China's foreign policy in the last four years. Although cautiously, China has indeed changed its position over the use of force and its authorisation of international operations in Mali and Syria. Since the common threat are dangerous non-state actors, Chinese and Western security interests are slowly aligning in regions such as Africa and the Middle East. Concerns over the non-interference principle are much less in those cases. From this point of view it is possible to see that, when one looks at Asia and the maritime disputes alone, China and the PLAN still firmly belong to the 'modern' balance of power-dominated world described by Robert Cooper. At the same time, however, shades of 'post-modernism' are visible in the Chinese military presence outside that region, in places where China and other countries face similar dilemmas and threats originating from the 'pre-modern' world (failed states and terrorists). Global port calls and anti-piracy escorts are classic examples of this 'post-modern' turn. China is likely to become a hybrid of 'modern' and 'post-modern,' similar to the US in that sense: powerful enough to compete for, at least, regional hegemony in Asia like a 'modern' state, and 'global' enough so that its interests are indissolubly connected to world peace and stability as it is pushed to become more active to protect them.
China has started, more or less consciously, to walk this path. This, indeed, is not a decision entirely up to China: its interests abroad have already reached a significant size and have become the target of threats that cannot be eliminated only through diplomacy. At the same time, solutions to the disputes in Asia does not look close at hand, and without that, any 'post-modern' development will remain fragile. The increasingly ambivalent role of the PLAN, both a tool to win regional hegemony and as a force for the common good, is the natural result of such a complex situation. Hence, it does make sense to pay great attention to the PLAN in Asia, but the global picture should not be neglected as well.
This does not mean giving up important principles like freedom of navigation, especially when China's behavior appears inconsistent between firm support for the UN and refusal to accept the authority of a recognised international tribunal. However, those same principles should not be used as a pretext to close the door on meaningful cooperation outside Asia by following the equally inconsistent logic that 'what we teach China will be used against us one day, but we blame China for being a free-rider.' A China entrenched in the 'modern' world is in the interest of no one.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee.