Last week, Brad Glosserman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies made the smart observation that China has recently chosen a surprisingly hard course in its foreign policy. It has lately picked a series of fights with its neighbours which threaten to derail the 'peaceful rise' policy which facilitated so much of its earlier growth. Brad finds this bizarre and wonders whether the new Chinese leadership knows what it is doing, or whether this will lead to more clashes and open balancing against China.

Hugh White responded on the Interpreter that this behaviour is a part of China's larger plan to slowly push the US out of the Asian region. China has learned from the Soviet Union: instead of confronting the US directly and provoking a big response, the Chinese are looking for small cracks, like the Senkaku Islands or Scarborough Shoal.

These pressure points fall below the American radar; America, it is often said, will not go to war over some uninhabited rocks in the western Pacific. But on the other hand, by bullying neighbours over these low stakes and winning, China sets a precedent and reinforces its image as the emerging regional power. This is a 'death by a thousand cuts' or 'creeping normality' strategy: China is slowly reconfiguring the east Asian board by small moves, none of which is big enough to cause a breach, but which in toto change the status quo in its favour.

If White is correct, then the peaceful rise is indeed over, and East Asia looks likely to conform to realist models that project Wilhelmine Germany onto modern China. The militarised pivot should then continue, the US should indeed to prepare to fight over some 'uninhabited rocks,' and containment is likely.

Before we go down this frightening road however, there are alternative, domestic explanations for China's recent behaviour which flow from 'Hanlon's razor': never attribute to conspiracy that which can be just as easily explained by incompetence. In the context of China's rise, what looks to White like a larger plan to push out the US may be far less organised and coherent — the outcome of a series of domestic factional battles in a new administration rushing to establish itself, control its military, and legitimate itself to a cynical population. We may be seeing more coherence in Chinese foreign policy than is really there.

Alternative explanations would note that China is not governed very well, with a lot of factionalism, military-civilian rivalry, confused lines of the authority between the state and party, widespread corruption, and so on. Such explanations would also capture why China, as Brad has noted, has persisted on this hazardous course despite pushing its neighbours toward America. If White is correct, these Chinese actions should dent the US alliance system and push neighbours to equivocate out of fear. But that is not what appears to be happening. Instead, the neighborhood is drifting toward the US. So why continue, unless foreign policy belligerence serves other, domestic needs?

I can think of two internal explanations, one focused on the new Xi Jinping government's need for legitimacy, and a second on the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) flagging raison d'etre:

1. Tension with the neighbourhood is new premier Xi's sop to the military and its hawks

I made a similar argument last year about the expansion of the China's Air Defence Identification Zone. We know that late communist systems factionalise; indeed authoritarian systems generally factionalise as they age. Internal rivalries and power struggles are the inevitable outcome of governance systems without elections. No one knows who enjoys popular support, who is really up or really down. There is no barometer. And when the great leader finally passes, there are strong incentives for all parties to settle on a confused, power struggle-prone oligarchy to avoid the harshness and arbitrariness of the autocracy.

This is where China is today. Post-Mao and post-Deng, no one rules undisputedly and the factional split of the CCP into the 'Shanghai' coastal clique of modernising princelings against retro-Maoist hinterland populists is well known. (Xi is of the former group.) And neither can hold power without the support of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Since Tiananmen Square, the party cannot risk alienating 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. It keeps the PLA happy and solidifies its support of his premiership. It covers for the inevitable slow down in growth, and appeals to Xi's desire for China to play a larger role in world affairs and accrue greater respect.

2. The CCP is effectively obsolete and needs something to forestall multiparty elections, such as nationalism and fights with neighbours

The primary goals of the CCP since the beginning of the republic were to maintain China's territorial integrity and pull China back to the global esteem it enjoyed before the 'one hundred years of humiliation.' The tool to do this was modernisation: first (failed) communist, then later capitalist growth. By any reasonable measure, China and the party have done this. China has not spun apart; China is now a middle-income state with the world's second-largest GDP. It is now feared globally, if not loved. Its growth trajectory for the future is good. Barring some cataclysm, it seems fair to project several more decades of annual growth above 5%. Indeed, the only big CCP objective unfilled is unification with Taiwan.

Ironically then, the CCP has succeeded to the point where it is longer necessary. Specifically, China is at the point where single-party rule for developmental purposes can no longer be really justified. China is not really a poor country anymore. The 'Asian developmentalist' argument that democracy obstructs growth no longer holds. China is either now, or will shortly, be ready for democracy: its citizens are educated and wealthy enough that paternalist arguments for party guidance no longer make sense (if they ever did).

But single-party states rarely just give up. And although the CCP has developed China, it has also abused it. An embarrassing truth-and-reconciliation process and jail time awaited the old regime in South Africa; one could imagine the same and more in China. So if the party lacks its old economic and prestige arguments for one-party rule, then how about nationalism? Patriotic education has been the de facto national ideology since communism collapsed with the Cold War's end and Tiananmen. Xi's maritime nationalism fits this well. Better tension than transition.

China's bullying of its neighbours is worrisome. And White may be right that it is a part of a larger Chinese regional strategy to push the US out. But communist states are often badly factionalised actors. Indeed Stalinist political concentration, without elections, encourages it. There may be internal reasons explaining recent Chinese belligerence.  

Photo by Flickr user Philip.