Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:43 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 21:43 | SYDNEY

A bad moment for Chinese naval nationalism


Rory Medcalf


10 March 2009 17:28

The so-called EP-3 incident, the collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a US EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft, severely strained US-China relations in the early months of the first George W Bush Administration. Now it looks as if some in the People’s Liberation Army-Navy are keen on a reprise, this time at sea.

In a recent lecture at the Lowy Institute, I suggested that current conditions were inauspicious for management of a security crisis involving the US and China:

Imagine something like the EP-3 incident…against the backdrop of: a US-China trade war; Beijing’s need to manage deep domestic discontent, with unemployment rising and graduates not finding jobs; the suspension of US-China defence dialogue owing to China’s umbrage at US arms sales to Taiwan; and US foreign and security policy attention already being monopolised by a series of crises and challenges in the Middle East and Afghanistan-Pakistan.

Perhaps some of my gloom was a bit hasty. Risks of protectionism still loom but Hillary Clinton has been quick to focus on East Asian security, and Beijing and Washington recently revived their defence diplomacy. If they move from here to hammer out a Cold War-style agreement on the prevention and management of incidents at sea, it will be not a moment too soon.

But don’t expect it. For the tenor of China’s first official statement on the South China Sea incident is uncompromising. 

It would be unusually dangerous for Beijing to choose a year of global economic and strategic uncertainty as its time for creeping assertiveness in the South China Sea. Maybe, as I argued in last month’s lecture, we are seeing evidence of a disconnect between over-confidence in external aspirations – a lag effect of the economic and diplomatic successes of recent years – and newfound domestic economic weakness.

Or worse, maybe some in China’s leadership will see a dash of naval nationalism as just the thing to distract citizens worried about their wellbeing. Either way, China would be better advised to revert to Deng’s advice about hiding its capabilities and biding its time, at least until the global economic crisis has subsided.