Beijing may be missing an opportunity for closer regional ties presented by a seemingly disengaged Washington.
BEIJING — In a remote corner of the Himalayas, China and India are engaged in a tense standoff that should send a shiver down any spine worried about the growing power of the Chinese in Asia.
The dispute began in June, when Chinese workers were discovered constructing a road across a stretch of territory claimed by both China and the tiny nation of Bhutan, a close ally of India. New Delhi responded by sending troops to confront the perceived incursion, and ever since the two sides have glared at each other nervously. Beijing and New Delhi have both claimed to be in the right and refused to back down – using very strong language to argue their respective positions.
The Chinese, though, have gone a step further – into overt threats. “The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers,” warned the Global Times, a tabloid run by China’s Communist Party. “India will suffer greater losses than in 1962,” a reference to that year’s border war between the two giants, in which the Chinese military bested India’s. Following that up, another commentary blasted that India’s position in the dispute “is as feeble as its troops on the ground,” and, “perhaps it is time that it be taught a second lesson.”
The warnings have not been limited to Chinese media. In early August, a spokesman for Beijing’s defense ministry made the military’s resolve on the dispute all too blunt. “No country should underestimate the confidence and ability of the Chinese military to fulfill its duty of defending peace,” Col. Ren Guoqiang said in a statement, as reported by The New York Times. “Nor should it underestimate the determination and will of the Chinese military to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.”
India is far from the only country in Asia to encounter such belligerence from Beijing. As a Washington paralyzed by its own political chaos has stepped back from the vital region, China has become more assertive in pressing its political and economic interests. Yet Beijing’s approach has often been to harass, bully and snub its neighbors. Countries from South Korea to Singapore have felt Beijing’s wrath. As a result, China, rather than expanding its influence at America’s expense, is struggling to win support for its own agenda for the region.
“The one thing most likely to undermine China’s regional ambitions is forcing its neighbors to coalesce against it,” says Jeff Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, “Certainty, in some capitals it is building in that direction.”
Beijing may be squandering an opportunity it has sought for years. As China has grown richer, its leaders have chafed at the continued presence of the U.S. in East Asia, acting as a bulwark against rising Chinese influence. Washington has attempted to balance Chinese power by strengthening relations with both longtime allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, and new partners, including India and Vietnam. It has done so while challenging Chinese attempts at expanding its clout, by, for instance, contesting Beijing’s controversial territorial claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
However, President Donald Trump has fostered uncertainty about America’s commitment to Asia by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact and criticizing close allies Japan and South Korea on issues including trade and defense. As a result, America’s standing in Asia has suffered a black eye. A recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that only 17 percent of South Koreans, 24 percent of Japanese and 23 percent of Indonesians have confidence that Trump will do the right thing in international affairs.
Yet the Chinese aren’t winning hearts and minds, either. That same Pew survey showed that East Asians aren’t warming to Chinese President Xi Jinping any more than to Trump. While in a few countries, Xi had a slightly more positive image than Trump, such as South Korea, in others, he is trusted even less. Only 11 percent of Japanese, 18 percent of Vietnamese and 21 percent of Indians expressed confidence Xi would do the right thing in world affairs. Favorable views of China have also slumped in several Asian countries, including South Korea, India and Vietnam.
It isn’t hard to see why. In recent days, China has pressured Vietnam to discontinue energy exploration activities in the South China Sea, according to the BBC, by threatening to attack Hanoi’s bases in the area. Similarly, Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines,revealed that Xi, during a meeting between the two leaders in May, warned China would go to war if Manila pressed its claims in the sea. Xi made that threat even though Duterte has been steering his country, a longtime U.S. ally, into a cozier relationship with Beijing.
Even Singapore, which traditionally had solid ties with China, has featured in Beijing’s crosshairs. In a clear snub, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, wasn’t invited to a high-profile summit in Beijing in May to advance Xi’s region-wide infrastructure-building program, called “One Belt, One Road.” Lee’s crime may have been his tepid support for Beijing’s position on the South China Sea.
South Korea may have taken the worst beating. Beijing objected to a decision by Seoul to deploy an American missile-defense system, which it saw as a challenge to its national security. In an apparently orchestrated assault to force Korea to back down, Chinese companies boycotted Korean products, Chinese travel agencies canceled tour packages to Korea and the government blocked popular Korean pop stars from promotional events in the country. In June, newly elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in suspended the system’s deployment, officially to allow time for an environmental assessment. “Obviously, the pressure China puts on South Korea has taken effect,” an editorial in the Global Timesboasted. “Seoul’s will has been shaken.”
Not entirely. Beijing’s strong-arm tactics have not always succeeded in compelling its neighbors to obey its wishes. After another North Korean missile test in late July, Moon appears to be reversing course by not only calling for a resumption of the missile system’s deployment, but also the development of a South Korean missile program.
Other countries also remain wary of China’s regional initiatives. Despite Beijing’s push for its own favored, Asia-wide trade pact, the 11 countries still involved in the TPP after the U.S. withdrawal are trying to press ahead with the pact without Washington. India didn’t even send a delegation to Xi’s “Belt and Road” bash in May, angered that one project within the program is being built through a section of Kashmir occupied by Pakistan but claimed by New Delhi.
[READ: Poll shows many see China closing the gap on U.S. economic power.]
Beijing is unlikely to change its hardball foreign policy tactics. The assertive approach plays well to a domestic Chinese audience looking to their government to defend the country’s perceived interests. “China isn’t so worried about whether people like it or not,” says Merriden Varrall, director of the East Asia program at the Lowy Institute, a policy think tank in Sydney. “The very core factor is party legitimacy. It rests on being a strong resurgent Chinese nation protecting its territory.”
In the end, China’s aggressiveness in the region, rather than pushing the U.S. out, may be achieving just the opposite. “Many countries realize the U.S. is the only country that can serve as a true counterweight to China,” says Smith. “As China’s power and influence grows, and as it uses its power and influence with both carrots and sticks, sometimes very heavily handed, the attractiveness of the U.S. also grows.”
By Michael Schuman