NEW DELHI – China’s growing geopolitical heft is emboldening its territorial creep in Asia. After laying claim to 80% of the South China Sea, it has just established a so-called air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, raising the odds of armed conflict with Japan and threatening the principle of freedom of navigation of the seas and skies. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic continues to nibble furtively at territory across the long, disputed Himalayan border with India.
Few seem to fathom the logic behind China’s readiness to take on several neighbors simultaneously. China is seeking to alter the status quo gradually as part of a high-stakes effort to extend its control to strategic areas and resources. President Xi Jinping’s promise of national greatness – embodied in the catchphrase “China dream” – is tied as much to achieving regional hegemony as to internal progress.
China’s approach reflects what the Chinese general Zhang Zhaozhong this year called a “cabbage” strategy: assert a territorial claim and gradually surround the area with multiple layers of security, thus denying access to a rival. The strategy relies on a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground.
This approach severely limits rival states’ options by confounding their deterrence plans and making it difficult for them to devise proportionate or effective counter-measures. This is partly because the strategy – while bearing all the hallmarks of modern Chinese brinkmanship, including reliance on stealth, surprise, and a disregard for the risks of military escalation – seeks to ensure that the initiative remains with China.