China's Neighbors Move to Hedge Its Power

Brinkmanship is making for a testy summer in East Asia. In recent years, China has been building up its naval fleet, enabling it to maintain control over trade routes. Now, its activities are provoking pushback from neighbors, and attempts to contain the rising superpower appear to be entering a new phase.

A key flash point is the South China Sea. Its resource-rich islands have drawn competing sovereignty claims from China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—with China acting the least cooperatively. At July's ASEAN Summit in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleased regional leaders by targeting China's harassment of foreign ships and declaring peaceful resolution of territorial disputes an American "national interest." But China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi labeled her comments an "attack" and warned against internationalizing the issue.

The spat occurred at a sensitive time: the U.S. and South Korea had just begun joint naval exercises in the East Sea. Originally intended to show solidarity against China's ally, North Korea, its unprecedented scale—involving some 20 warships, 200 aircraft, and 8,000 troops—angered Beijing. But the bad feelings are mutual. This year, China's own war games have grown. Japan claims two Chinese submarines and eight destroyers passed through its waters in a brazen incursion in April.

Such belligerence "really puts a question mark in the minds of the Asia-Pacific countries about China's claims for a peaceful rise," says Abraham Denmark of the Center for a New American Security. The result: the region is now in the throes of a naval buildup, motivated at least partly by the need to hedge against Beijing's power. Japan is boosting its submarine fleet for the first time in 36 years; Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia are also ramping up acquisitions. Even as Vietnam celebrates a "Year of Friendship" with China, it has bought six Kilo-class fast-attack submarines and has moved to strengthen defense ties with India, which is concerned about Chinese encroachment in the Indian Ocean.

As for America, says the Asia Society's Charles Armstrong, its challenge is reconciling its role as a regional stabilizer in Asia with the "reality of its declining power." In June, the U.S. agreed to extend its command presence in South Korea 'til 2015. Still, China's neighbors are moving to belatedly assert themselves because they realize an overstretched U.S. won't always be around.