The South China Sea is vast, encompassing around 1.4 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and its islands are so minuscule that most can barely accommodate an airplane runway and a few houses. Just several dozen permanent residents live on an atoll named Pagasa. Yet this past year, Pagasa and the other tiny islets have been drawn into one of the hottest military flash points in the world. China has treated nearly the entire South China Sea as its domain, even though five other nations claim part of it, and has increasingly harassed and even threatened to sink Vietnamese and Philippine boats passing through the area. At the same time, Chinese officials once known for their smooth, charming embrace of their neighbors seem to have flipped a switch, turning angry, demanding and intimidating. At a meeting with representatives of Southeast Asian nations last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi exploded, according to several reports, launching into a thirty-minute diatribe about China’s vast claims to the South China Sea, a vital shipping route and supposedly the site of significant petroleum deposits. Topping off his performance, Yang mocked his Vietnamese hosts, implicitly warning them not to defy Beijing. China’s state media have echoed Yang’s belligerent rhetoric, and this past spring some hawkish Chinese strategists and officials privately talked of the need for a “limited war” with Vietnam, to show their southern neighbor who is the real power in Asia.
To many observers in Asia, and some American officials, the scene of Chinese officials berating their Asian peers over bragging rights to the South China Sea was a taste of threats to come from an increasingly powerful nation. Their fear is that China, fortified by a roaring economy and renewed military might, will abandon niceties and brusquely reclaim the influence it had enjoyed for millenniums, until the combination of Western technological advancement and the feebleness of China’s last imperial court brought down the Middle Kingdom in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “No one will say it openly, but what drives every meeting in Southeast Asia now is fear of what the region will be like with China dominating,” one Vietnamese diplomat told me.
But despite outsiders’ view of China, some Chinese scholars—and even, in private, a few Chinese officials—admit that, contrary to the image of a rising colossus, China’s recent aggressive behavior suggests something different. They think that the country’s leadership has become more divided and weaker than in the recent past and is unable to control hawks in the military or the Communist Party, or state companies and Beijing’s officials. The People’s Liberation Army has increasingly been promoting its opinions through its own publications and its domestic networks of civilian think tanks. At times, the PLA appears to have initiated or escalated international disputes—against the wishes of the top leadership in Beijing—in order to push Chinese policy in a more hawkish direction. Like the military-industrial complex in the United States, the PLA appears to have formed a tentative alliance with powerful Chinese energy companies, which have embarked on a global hunt for natural resources.
Ever since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, forceful, unifying figures have dominated the political arena and the PLA. The first was Mao Zedong, who used his unparalleled charisma and political genius to pit rivals against one another, to create a cult of personality and to exert ruthless control over the country’s political system. After Mao came Deng Xiaoping, whose photo should be plastered above Tiananmen Square instead of his predecessor’s, as he used his vast political savvy and dominance of the party and military to wrench China from the abyss of the Cultural Revolution and set in place the most breathtaking economic development in modern history.