In discussing the issue of why the People’s Republic of China plunked down the drilling rig HYSY981 more than 100 kilometers off the Vietnamese coast and near the China-controlled Paracels, there seems to be a certain amount of cognitive dissonance plaguing the Western commentariat.
Apropos the HYSY981 affair, The Asia Society hosted a roundtable on its website composed of the luminaries Daniel Kliman, Ely Ratner, Orville Schell, Susan Shirk, and Carl Thayer. Almost all of them ignored the elephant in the room – the US pivot to Asia.
Only Carl Thayer, in my opinion, gets it right in discussing the third of his three possibilities for the PRC’s provocation:
The third interpretation stresses the geo-political motivations behind China’s actions. The deployment of the CNOOC mega rig was a pre-planned response to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to East Asia. China was angered by Obama’s support for both Japan and the Philippines in their territorial disputes with Beijing. Therefore China manufactured the oil rig crisis to demonstrate to regional states that the United States was a “paper tiger” and there was a gap between Obama’s rhetoric and ability to act.
The third interpretation has plausibility. China can make its point and then withdraw the oil rig once it has completed its mission in mid-August. But this interpretation begs the question why Vietnam was the focus for this crisis and why China acted on the eve of the summit meeting of the heads of government/state of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 
I would go a step further than Mr Thayer, and opine that China’s South China Sea escapade is more than a one-off tantrum. It represents a “sea change” in the PRC’s strategy for dealing with the pivot to Asia.
For US-China relations, that means: No G2. That’s been clear since Hillary Clinton 86’ed the concept as secretary of state.
Little more than symbolic lip service to the “new great power” relationship founded on the comforting myth of the World War II victors’ dispensation with the heirs to Franklin D Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek calling the Asian shots, a fantasy which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is working assiduously to undermine and supersede.
And, most importantly, from the Chinese point of view, no pivot.
In other words, the PRC intends to ignore the idea that its actions in its near-beyond are to be deterred by the alarm and opposition of the US and the Asian democracies, thereby challenging the basic assumption of the pivot: that China’s defiance of the pivot triggers a virtuous cycle of escalation and anxiety, causing smaller Asian countries to cleave to the United States more closely, thereby enhancing US influence and inhibiting the PRC’s freedom of motion.
I would suggest that, to answer Mr Thayer’s rhetorical question, the reason that the PRC decided to beat up on Vietnam just before the ASEAN summit – when, by pivot logic the PRC should be loath to antagonize its nervous regional interlocutors and increase the risk of united, anti-PRC action on behalf of Vietnam and the Philippines by the various spooked ASEAN nations – the Chinese leadership did it because they could, and because they wanted to.
Quite simply, I think, the PRC wanted to make a statement that it would not be deterred.
Surprisingly, ASEAN went along and declined to administer a serious flaming to the PRC, despite the vociferous complaints of Vietnam and the Philippines concerning the rather blatant provocations by the PRC. A communique on the issue merely asked for “all sides” to show restraint. Wonder how much bilateral stroking and arm-twisting that took.
The fact that the PRC has taken a major action to repudiate the basic premise of the pivot – that a US-led security alliance can deter unilateral and provocative PRC behavior and put an end to the endless exercise of salami-slicing and cabbage-wrapping in its maritime adventures – is, in my opinion, a pretty big deal.
The pivot, after all, is welcomed because it assumes that the PRC, whose military is no match for the US or even, probably, Japan, can be deterred with relatively low risk and at low cost.
If the PRC is going to ignore the consequences of challenging the US pivot and assume, rather logically, that the US is not going to light off a war with China over the South China Sea, those costs and risks increase. Worst case, President Obama has to fall back on Nixon’s “madman” doctrine, which is to say the United States is prepared to inflict and endure (at least through its unlucky allies) losses disproportionate to the interests at stake in order to maintain credibility of the deterrent.
The PRC’s willingness to challenge, provoke, and escalate is a major issue for the pivot. However, the clang of cognitive dissonance still seems to be faint and ignorable for the public US Asian affairs commentariat, at least as long as the designated victim is Vietnam, if the Asia Society round table is an indicator.
Ely Ratner and Susan Shirk, in particular, take the tack that the HYSY981 is simply a big, stupid blunder by the big, stupid PRC.
First, Ely Ratner:
[T]he Chinese Communist Party appears increasingly unable to reconcile predominant political and economic goals of securing its sovereignty aims while sustaining a peaceful regional security environment … we’ve seen China engage in bearish and clumsy actions that have raised concerns not just in Tokyo and Manila, but also Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and now Hanoi. At the end of the day, this means that domestic bureaucratic and political imperatives are overcoming the logic of strategy in Beijing, a dangerous development for outsiders hoping that relative costs and benefits (not politics and nationalism) will shape China’s decision-making on its territorial disputes … These … troubling elements paint the picture of a country whose foreign policy is untethered from strategic logic and increasingly engaging in preemptive revisionism.
And Susan Shirk:
The diplomats in the Chinese Foreign Ministry, especially Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who crafted China’s very successful strategy to reassure Asian countries about China’s friendly intentions during 1996-2009 and is trying to revive the strategy now under Xi Jinping, must be well aware that such high-profile assertions of sovereignty will provoke a backlash among China’s worried neighbors. When ASEAN meets next week, the Southeast Asian countries will certainly be pointing fingers at China, as Taylor Fravel predicts in his very informative Q & A with The New York Times. But the Foreign Ministry’s voice no longer dominates the foreign policy process.
What China’s actions reflect, as Ely Ratner says, is the very dangerous possibility that Chinese security policy has become “untethered from strategic logic.” In other words, domestic bureaucratic interest groups and nationalist public opinion are driving toward over-expansion of sovereignty claims in a manner that could actually harm China’s overall national security interests.
I am no fan of the “crazy stupid psycho panda” school when it comes to analyzing PRC moves that the US finds disturbing. Nevertheless, the CSPP school -the California School of Professional Psychology – is a remarkably durable construct in US Asia-wonk circles, perhaps in direct proportion in faith in the genius of the pivot and the idea that it is the best and essential tool for dealing with the PRC.
My general take is that the United States is the only power with the wealth, military capability, and political and geographic impunity to act really stupidly and irrationally, a characteristic, I might say, is on full display as the Obama administration feeds Ukraine into the maw of anarchy in order to punish Russia for the annexation of Crimea (and perhaps distract attention from the spectacular, compounded clusterf*ck that is the US program for building a pro-Western regime in Kiev)