China’s sea disputes as evidence of its weakness?

China is obviously not afraid of tension with its neighbors. It’s got active territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Chinese ships routinely clash with those of other countries using non-lethal weapons and tactics. But what would these activities say about China’s strength if they were taken on the initiative not of Xi Jinping but of the military? The same military which – in the words of the New York Times – occasionally “runs its own foreign policy“? Yet, a military somewhat independent of the Xi Jinping could easily explain the mixed signals China is sending, discussing reform and a peaceful rise on one side, while its enlarged navy increasingly flexes its muscle towards its neighbors.

A piece by Robert E Kelly on the Interpreter goes some way to this point, arguing that even if Xi is president, there could be a quid pro quo between him and the military:

Xi is new. He did not emerge without a fight. He almost certainly made promises to the PLA in order to win the factional power struggle. The PLA is arguably the most hawkish, anti-American faction in the government. Xi is also surmised to have a greater interest in foreign affairs because of his creation of a ‘national security council.’ He needs some manner of legitimating ideology, and ‘more growth’ will not do the trick anymore. It is widely understood now that China’s growth is slowing, and that unrestrained headline growth has generated massive negative environmental and social externalities. In such a context, ‘naval nationalism’ is not a bad legitimating choice.

Soon after Xi secured the leadership, he cemented his control of the military we were told, making Xi the strongest leader in years. But in a factional, internally divided power structure, why wouldn’t securing control of the military involve a pledge to allow it act within certain bounds? Say, allowing China’s maritime forces, the Navy, its Coast Guard, to use non-lethal to assert its claim on China’s near seas.

Sure it’s contradictory and confusing to the outside world but from inside China the contradiction may be seen as tolerable and an acceptable compromise. As long as no outright war breaks out, China gets to assert more power, and have its population buy into this destiny-defining tension.

What appears strong from afar (flotillas of ships, water cannons, a brinksman ship on the seas) masks deep divisions at home, where the government itself is a collection of fiefdoms with differing goals. Hu Jintao has been described as a weak leader as Xi made his way to the top. But Xi may actually be the weaker leader for allowing the kind of militarism to flourish that sends China’s trade partners running into the arms of the US.

Napoli l’Orientale University international relations professor Pietro Masina interprets the China’s recent decision to place an oil rig in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone as a potential sign of fragility within China. From Al Jazeera:

“In some way, the Chinese aggressive behavior in the contested area is a sign of weakness,” Masina said. “A powerful country that wants to be a regional power is one which builds consensus around its policies. And if China is able to stand out by military force, politically it is weak. It is in the Chinese interests to find a negotiable solution to the issue.”

But that isn’t what is happening.

Another possibility would fall into the category of ‘miscalculation.’ Is it possible that China’s leaders, deciding that China’s rise is a certainty, now think they have the right to waters and islands that are much closer to their neighbors? Is it possible that there is incredulity on China’s part that there should be such resistance from Vietnam and the Philippines, and even from Japan? In this case, China has really adopted the attitude of ‘Hey, Asia, of course your territory is ours. Everyone agrees that we are the rising power.’

If this is the case, the miscalculation outside of China would be the failure to appreciate this view. And so, there is consternation from everyone in the region – and beyond – that China is throwing its weight around  like it owns the place.