China has become increasingly assertive over claims in parts of the East China Sea and almost all of the South China Sea, pitting itself against a half-dozen other countries.
The latest incident occurred last week when a flotilla of Chinese ships watching over a deep-sea oil rig Beijing had relocated in contested waters near the Paracel Islands rammed Vietnamese vessels.
As the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered in Myanmar to discuss maritime disputes and other issues last weekend they were entitled to ask why China seems intent on alienating every major maritime power in the region, and to what end?
The Chinese answer is that expanding strategic and economic interests need protection. But the danger of rapid accumulation of power is bloated ambition founded on hubris.
And it is this overweening ambition — with roots in the Chinese Communist Party’s self-serving historical construction of China’s role and place in Asia — that is increasingly troubling for the region and creating enormous difficulties of one’s own making for Beijing at the same time.
When the CCP under Mao Zedong took power in 1949, the immediate goal was to re-establish the “greater China” of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties.
Mao insisted that the zenith of these two periods represented the permanent and enduring China.
On assuming power he quickly secured territories lost after the collapse of the Qing dynasty through the “peaceful liberation” of the East Turkestan Republic (now Xinjiang) in 1949 and the invasion of Tibet in 1950.
This increased the size of his People’s Republic of China by more than one-third.
Every CCP leader since, including incumbent President Xi Jinping, has carried forward Mao’s vision of a greater China, revisiting history to expand dominion as the country’s power grows.
Greater China now encompasses areas of the East China Sea administered by Japan and almost all of the South China Sea.
Part justification for the former is that an unjust treaty was imposed on China after its defeat by Japan before the 19th century and the latter that it was part of China’s “historic waters” during the pinnacle of the Ming Dynasty.
History can serve many causes. True, humiliation by outside powers such as Japan and Britain during the Qing period is historical fact.
But the party is silent about the fact the brutality and folly of the Mao period (1949-76) did more to bring the PRC to its knees than did any outsider.
In any event, treating such expansive territorial claims as the natural and permanent state of affairs discourages compromise.
It also ignores the reality that Chinese imperial dominion has expanded and contracted many times over millennia and that the self-designated Middle Kingdom is only one of several historic powers with longstanding interests in the region.
As selective history is used to vindicate claim, and claim becomes conviction, such selective history becomes the basis for the party’s sacred mission and a more strident foreign policy.
Avenging historical slights and reclaiming “historic waters” is central to the CCP’s contemporary political raison d’etre.
And in propagating the narrative that CCP is responsible for restoring the proper strategic and territorial order that has stood for millennia, eventually making good on these claims has become intrinsic to the party’s domestic standing and legitimacy.
Such ambition leaves the region in a bind since the common wisdom is still that a softly-softly approach to China will engender a satisfied, constructive and benign rising power, while treating the nation as a competitor will guarantee that it emerges as one.
Instead, regional powers have discovered that treating Chinese provocations with kid gloves and refraining from criticising Chinese behaviour only seems to embolden Beijing.
Yet the CCP’s immense ambition is creating problems for itself in the form of fomenting internal expectations that it likely cannot meet.
Despite overseeing the most rapid rises in military spending in peacetime history, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is still likely to suffer a whipping at the hand of the under-rated Japanese self-defence forces, not to mention the US Seventh Fleet.
Pitting China against a half-dozen maritime countries means that Beijing has no genuine allies or strategic friends to speak of despite its economic size and importance, shaping it as the loneliest rising power in world history.
China’s recent behaviour has caused every maritime country in the region to welcome a renewed and reinvigorated US strategic and military presence in Asia — demonstrating the error of the inverted logic that it is the reinvigorated US presence that first provoked an assertive Chinese counter-response.
Moreover, because of authoritarian frailties, the CCP’s standing with its own people is brittle, evinced by the fact official spending on the People’s Armed Police, in charge of domestic security, exceeds the PLA’s budget.
As an importer of innovation and resources, and still reliant on exporting goods to Western consumers, China needs the US-backed regional order for its economic growth more than it is prepared to admit.
The CCP cannot afford economic disruption or a foreign policy disaster in the form of a military defeat in the East or South China Seas if it wants to remain in power — all the more reason the US and its allies ought to hold their nerve.
To borrow some wisdom from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, it is the CCP’s “vaulting ambition which overleaps itself” that is the region’s chief concern, and China’s great danger and vulnerability.