Night Watch

China-US: Public exchanges by senior US and Chinese leaders have increased strain in Chinese-US relations. The Asian Security Forum that was held last week in Singapore, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, was the center of the verbal sparring.

In Singapore, Secretary Hagel, supported by Japanese Prime Minister Abe, accused the Chinese of destabilizing Asia by taking unilateral actions to assert sovereignty in the South China Sea. (The speech covered other issues, but the South China Sea remarks set off the Chinese.)

The Japanese Prime Minister told the Forum Japan will offer its "utmost support" to Southeast Asian countries as they seek to protect their seas and airspace.

China quickly struck back. Chinese media published remarks by General Wang Guanzhong, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, in which he criticized the American Secretary for making such remarks in public. Wang said Hagel's speech was "full of hegemony, incitement, threats and intimidation."

On Friday, Xinhua published remarks by Chinese President Xi Jinping. During a meeting in Beijing with Malaysia's prime minister, Xi said that China will not initiate aggressive action in the South China Sea, but will respond if other countries do.

Comment: Following US public accusations of Chinese computer hacking, Secretary Hagel's remarks are likely to reinforce Chinese suspicions that the US actively is attempting to contain China.

The warnings and threats will not change Chinese behavior. President's Xi's attempt at reassurance is actually a rephrasing of existing policy. It does not signify compromise or a change in Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

At this stage, China essentially has picked a quarrel with all of its maritime neighbors, but has avoided a test of military strength. Nevertheless, that is almost inevitable because China will not back down.

Despite the verbal exchanges, China's behavior suggests the leadership perceives no reason to exercise greater caution based on US behavior. On the other hand, a Japanese-led regional security cooperation arrangement would be a concern, should it emerge.

China is offering no peaceful economic arrangement that might sidestep confrontation, while allowing nations to profit from sea and seabed resources. China's blunt, pugnacious management style requires acceptance of Chinese sovereignty before other arrangements may be addressed. That is reminiscent of the style of the Chinese empire in dealing with tributary kingdoms and states.

Night Watch

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