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May 12, 2013

China's Not Working in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood

By

They pitched their tents in orderly, military fashion. All was quiet on the windswept plain, except for the sharp bark of guard dogs.

But the sign tacked in front of the tents sent tremors through capitals around the world. It read, simply: "You are on Chinese Side."

That changed last week. Chinese troops withdrew from their advanced positions on the India-China border, and the crisis has subsided. For now.

But China has been toughening its stance on border disputes for many years now. Its challenge to India centers mostly on the Northeast Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This most recent flare-up, however, occurred elsewhere -- a move many interpreted as Beijing upping the ante in its long-running challenge of India's borders.

Yet India isn't the only nation feeling pressure from China. Beijing seems to be on a campaign to antagonize just about everyone in its neighborhood. Vietnam and China are not on the best of terms in the South China Sea. And Beijing is physically challenging Japan in its dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

The Philippines are worried, too. China continues to secure its hold over Scarborough Shoal while rejecting calls for arbitration under the Law of the Sea Treaty -- a treaty ratified by both nations.

And, for some unexplained reason, China sent a naval task force into the South China Sea near the coast of Malaysia -- a country that otherwise seems to have no interest in squabbling with Beijing.

It looks like a pattern of unprecedented (in recent times) bad behavior. And, as one analyst noted with great understatement the South China Morning Post: "It has gotten everyone talking."

Like the Kremlinologists of old, South Asian analysts are trying to read the tea leaves and figure out if all these provocations are related -- and if they are, what do they mean?

Some are looking inside rather than outside China for answers. The more muscular foreign policy may reflect the wishes of the new leaders who are coming to the fore in Beijing. International provocations allow leaders to play the "nationalism" card, distracting attention from internal tensions by focusing on external "threats."

Others argue this is just China coming of age -- flexing its military capabilities and demonstrating how it can exert its military influence in what it considers its sphere of influence.

Some even argue that China is not acting more assertively at all.

All we know for sure is that China is becoming increasingly unpredictable -- and that is not a positive for those hoping to ensure peace and stability in Asia and prevent disputes from becoming armed conflicts.

Most China-watchers agree it will be a year or two before the world can understand clearly just how the transition in Beijing's leadership has changed the course of its foreign policy.

While Washington cannot do much about Beijing's unpredictability, it can do more than nothing. The only situation worse than one unpredictable great power is two.

The United States must become a more consistent force for good in Asia. That means abandoning the "pivoting" part of our Asia strategy. Pivoting entails leaving part of our vital interests exposed to unacceptable risk.

If we have to pivot back to address a non-Asian problem (say, a crisis in the Middle East), we leave Asia uncovered. Beijing knows that -- and it will wait for that day.

Second, America can't provide balance from afar. If it wants to be a strong and self-confident Asian power, it has to have a persistent, physical presence in the Asia Pacific.

Third, Washington needs to be building enduring bilateral alliances. We need all the friends we can get that share our objectives, goals and values.

-Washington Examiner Columnist James Jay Carafano is Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation

First appeared in The Washington Examiner.

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