China's Bid to Challenge the US and Rewrite International Rules

Source article in Chinese: 2013年中国对美的探底式外交
By He Qinglian on November 30, 2013

While the Sino-US diplomatic relation is still far from sabre-rattling, it is obvious that China intends to test the bottom line of the US. By testing the bottom line I mean China's approach of continually pushing the boundary of its adversary. If its adversary yields, China would tentatively push further. This bottom-line testing of Beijing is not an ad hoc action taken on a whim, rather, it is a strategy developed a long time ago.

Beijing long desires to rewrite international rules

Let's first go back to 2009.

Starting from its “peaceful rise” during the early years of the 21st century, China has been trying to change international rules. Since it is the US that is maintaining the current world order, for China to change that it would have to challenge the US, that's the reason China tests time and again the diplomatic bottom line of the US.

China has made no effort to conceal its wishes to change international rules. In December 2009, the way Chinese officials acted during the Copenhagen Climate Summit was a major bottom-line testing on Western rules. Some Chinese media outlets reported that using the title: “Copenhagen Climate Summit: China Strike Back”. US President Barack Obama, who had been trying to maintain positive relation with China, could finally take that anymore. On November 13, 2011, he requested at a press conference after the conclusion of APEC Summit in Hawaii that China stop “gaming” the international system and act like an adult when dealing with other countries. Responses from Chinese officials were multifarious, and it was what Pang Sen, Deputy Director of International Department, said that revealed what Beijing had in mind: “If the rules are made collectively through agreement and China is a part of it, then China will abide by them. If rules are decided by one or even several countries, China does not have the obligation to abide by that.”

This answer from Pang Sen is the key to understanding why China has been reluctant to abide by international rules. From WTO to all international human rights conventions, China has never taken part in their formulation. And it was not because those countries barred China from doing so, but because long before China the latecomer joined in the international community, organizations and agreements already existed. The reasons China signed on those agreements was that in so doing, it could get the ticket to become a part of the international community. But according to the political logic behind Pang Sen's words: China has no obligations to play by rules that it did not negotiate, Chinese officials have always held the idea that violating rules are perfectly justified, only that in the past the country was not strong enough for them to air this view in public. This time, cornered by Obama, Chinese officials finally took it off their chest.

With an understanding in this Chinese logic of Beijing that China is not obliged to follow international rules it did not negotiate, one would see the reason why several incidents concerning Sino-US diplomatic relations have taken place this year.

The Snowden incident: China turns the tables on the US

Chinese hackers' massive invasions in networks of other countries has been the main reason the US, Britain, Germany and Canada point their fingers at China and request rules on Cyber-warfare be established, and China has been in a disadvantaged position. As and when the US gathered a huge amount of evidence and hoped to get results from China, former NSA contractor Edward J Snowden secretly went in May this year to Hong Kong where he used as a base to continually leak to the outside world information that the US monitors its own people and governments of a number of countries (including US allies). This has not only left the US open for criticism from some of its own people and allies, but also cost the country its moral high ground in criticizing Chinese hackers.

The timing of Snowden’s exposure suited almost perfectly the needs of Beijing. It happened on the very night Obama’s meeting with Xi Jinping came to a conclusion (the morning of June 9, Hong Kong time), when Obama sought to discuss with Xi Jinping to solve the issue of Chinese hacker attacks. By making public the US monitoring of telephone and internet network, Snowden proved successfully that the democracy and human rights of the US were not real, and he also dragged the Obama administration into the quagmire of international disputes.

At that time, the US, together with Britain, Germany and other countries, denounced the invasion of Chinese hackers for months on end. When Snowden, a former NSA contractor, accused the US government of eavesdropping on its people and allies, America came to be viewed as the world’s largest hacker empire and China became a victim instead. Not only that, inside China a new understanding actually took shape: the Chinese government should not be blamed for monitoring the internet when even the US has been doing the same to its people.

While there were indications, and as later suggested by Albert Ho Chun-yan, the Hong Kong lawyer who was designated to contact Snowden, that Beijing was behind this former intelligence worker—for instance, Snowden’s trip to Hong Kong was planned in advance; during the period Snowden was there he got interviewed at the perfecting timing; once the interview was over he was relocated to the safe house arranged for him beforehand; and the government of Hong Kong ignored the extradition demand made by the US and allowed Snowden to board a plane to depart the city, Washington could do nothing about Beijing aside from expressing anger and disappointment.

Although Snowden is now trapped in Russia after the US authorities turned down his request to be pardoned and go home a free man made on the grounds that “underground living” was not free, the US suffered major losses and has yet to overcome from this Snowden incident.

From this incident, China savored the taste of a successful “strategic strike back”.

ADIZ: China’s new attempt to rewrite international rules

Perhaps because the victory in the Snowden incident came too easily, Beijing set aside the principle of making cautious and rational moves it upheld in the past. On November 23, 2013, China declared in the East China Sea an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which situates on top of the disputed islands—known as the Senkaku Islands in Japanese and the Diaoyu islands in Chinese—and overlaps with the Japanese ADIZ established more than four decades ago.

Several PLA Major Generals who have always been active in the media made tough remarks. Some said that unregistered flying objects would be struck down as and when they enter the zone. However, the US, Japan, and Australia unanimously objected China’s new ADIZ, saying the China's move was not good for the region’s stability.

Out of concerns for the safety of their passengers and taking into account that the United States has refrained from intervening in the territorial disputes between China and Japan, two private Japanese airlines comply with China’s new rules. Even though these were only civilian actions, their psychological impacts are tremendous; the whole world watches how Japan, without strong support from the US, would react.

It was a surprise that the US did not distance itself this time. On November 26 the Pentagon sent two B-52 jet fighters to fly over the ADIZ and back without following China’s new rules and did not notify Beijing in advance. Besides, US and Japanese fleets conducted a drill near the zone on November 27. All these moves showed a blatant contempt of the new rules recently declared by China, the country that took a tough stance initially made no counter-movement apart from coming up with some rhetoric. Thus, overseas media outlets cited Mao Zedong’s “paper tiger” to laugh at China. Even the World Daily, a pro-Communist Chinese newspaper in America published a piece that said Beijing is going to stumble the way Khrushchev did in 1962 and would bring disgrace onto itself.

Under this circumstance, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not but announce that an ADIZ does not equate a country’s airspace, normal navigation of state and civilian aircraft of other countries would not be affected. The Global Times simply pointed out that the new ADIZ targets only Japan and it asked the US to stay out of it.

China’s attempts to rewrite international rules would go on

Following the setback this ADIZ encountered, China’s state media finally revealed that four months ago, after weighing the pros and cons, Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the CPC and Chairman of the Central Military Commission stated that the rivalry between China and Japan would have to shift from a competition for resources to one that is about strategy. The problem is, China’s actions in the Pacific region would inevitably come into conflict with the Pacific strategy of the US. While this time the way Washington responded to China’s actions has made Beijing take a step back temporarily, it is predictable that China would would continue this bottom-line testing approach.

Once international rules are established, they would be relatively stable. Countries that aspire to rewrite existing rules might get what they want only under two circumstances: one, the challengers genuinely represent the demand of most of the other countries, and two, the challengers are powerful enough to make consent the sole option for other countries. Judging from the current international order, this challenge from China does not meet the interests of most of the other countries and is seen as a cause of international frictions. And, judging from military strength, China is still far from capable of challenging America. Therefore, the set-up of ADIZ would only greatly upset neighbors and turn China into a target of criticism.

However, Xi Jinping is not someone who would concede defeat easily. With “enriching the country and strengthening the military” as the core content of his Chinese dream, and a view that the rivalry between China and Japan is a competition about strategy—the focus of China’s Asia strategy, Xi Jinping would keep on trying to rewrite international rules.