The Price of Looking the Other Way

As China enjoys its meteoric rise to economic superpower status, it’s also starting to flex its military muscle in the East China Sea.

Last week the Chinese declared several islands in the East China Sea as Air Defense Identification Zones, which means that all air traffic over the islands must identify itself to Chinese aviation authorities.

Trouble is, the islands have been considered to be under Japanese sovereignty for most of the last century, and the insistence of the Chinese that they fall under their military defense zone is nothing more than an unprovoked land grab from Japan.

Such barefaced aggression should be of concern to the U.S., and in defiance of the outrageous Chinese declaration, Defense Secretary Hagel rightly sent B-52 bombers to overfly the area without complying with the policy. Japan has also openly flouted the new Chinese demands, flying reconnaissance planes over the islands without notifying the Chinese.

The islands are small, uninhabited, mostly barren rock, but the significance of the Chinese aggression has huge consequences to the balance of power in the region, and is another example of China testing the international community’s willpower to confront its increasingly aggressive stance. More importantly, the Chinese are testing the United States’ resolve towards abiding with its treaty to defend any part of Japan should it be attacked.

Although the U.S. and Japan are pushing back at the latest Chinese provocation, the question is whether this is too little too late, as the international community has looked the other way at repeated acts of Chinese human rights abuses, bellicosity and intense military buildup. China has gotten used to getting its way, and with its unmatched military might in the region, there isn’t much any of the other nations there can do to stop its growing assertiveness.

Looking the other way at Chinese infractions has been the policy of the international community for more than last two decades, and now the price for that disregard is coming to bear. It has been the policy because the other nations are afraid of losing China’s imports and exports. China has become the largest trader and the world’s interdependence on the country has made all other nations fearful of angering it. In other words, while the West may be mouthing the importance of human rights, it has been hypocritically placing its economic interests before everything else. In 1989, the world watched while the Chinese military ruthlessly suppressed the Tiananmen Square uprising, where hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians were massacred. Sure, there was the usual round of international condemnation, but it was mostly harsh rhetoric without any real bite.

To ensure that its supply of cheap electronics remains uninterrupted, the world, in effect, has also given a wink and a nod to Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet, where Chinese authorities routinely imprison, torture and kill Tibetans who practice their religion. European leaders generally eschew meeting the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibet, for fear that it may rub the Chinese the wrong way.

The U.S. has more reasons to be careful of lecturing China on human rights abuses. China is the largest holder of U.S. government debt. China owns more than $1.1 trillion of the current U.S. government deficit. That means that China is lending us the money to fund a large part of our government’s spending. Were China to pull the plug on its buying of U.S. government debt, it’s difficult to know which other nation would step into the breach.

American military power in the region won’t scare China as easily as it used to. The U.S. still maintains an edge militarily, both in capability and technology, but China has made huge leaps in catching up. China has made its own stealth bomber, the J-31, operational, and is building aircraft carriers. China is also building an asymmetric capability where it can hit U.S. ships with missiles and cripple communications with cyber-warfare. A May report by the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace predicts that China’s military prowess will give it the means to slowly erode American hegemony from the Western Pacific.

The latest form of unacceptable Chinese behavior has caused international consternation because it constitutes an overt act of aggression against a recognized border, but since the world has consistently given China a free pass for everything from human rights abuses to nuclear proliferation, the latest outrage is only another step in a natural progression of a totalitarian regime testing the waters of Western insouciance. Until the world is willing to pay more for their iPads, Galaxys, flat screens and other Chinese manufactured goods, they will have to witness more unchecked aggression by China in the Pacific.