China steps forward, moves backward
BRUSSELS -- Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington comes after what can only be described as a bad year in Chinese diplomacy. Beijing has long managed its foreign relations with a laser-like focus on ensuring an advantageous environment for its economic development and an unchecked accumulation of power, in part by reassuring its neighbors and the United States of its peaceful intentions.
But since China’s successful emergence from the global economic crisis, important constituencies have decided that the moment for biding their time has passed. So Beijing has pushed to convert its strengthened position into more tangible political rewards and has taken an increasingly uncompromising stance in its relations with the rest of the world. The reaction to China’s assertive efforts to advance its “core interests” has been a near clean-sweep in the deterioration of its major relationships. China’s assertiveness has been felt most sharply in its immediate neighborhood. It has upgraded expansive claims over the South China Sea, with the Chinese foreign minister startlingly dismissing the concerns of “small countries” in Southeast Asia. It has failed to restrain or condemn North Korean attacks on South Korea, wreaking lasting damage on its relationship with Seoul. Pressing disputes with India over their contested border has entrenched its strategic rivalry with the world’s other major rising power. And escalating a minor maritime dispute with Tokyo guaranteed that the new Japanese government would abandon plans to rebalance its relationship with Washington.
Further afield, European leaders -- burned by the Copenhagen climate negotiations and facing a tide of corporate complaints about worsening business conditions in China -- have toughened their trade and diplomatic policies. Arab and Israeli leaders pushed back against China’s stance on Iran. And Beijing’s lock-step partnership with Moscow in the UN Security Council unraveled, most strikingly over North Korea. The disputes are diverse in nature but there is a clear collective concern that if China continues to define its interests narrowly and pursues them more aggressively, its rise is going to be more difficult to deal with than many had previously hoped. As a result, a range of countries have intensified informal consultations on how to respond. While not yet a balancing coalition, the early signs of a closer coordination on China policy are evident. At the center of this process is the United States. Whether it be allies (Japan, South Korea) or new partners (India, Indonesia), ties with Washington have intensified as anxieties about China have grown. The administration has deftly handled the opportunities this has presented, and not only in Asia: its marshaling of multilateral pressure on China over Iran, for instance, involved a geographically diverse coalition. Most galling to Beijing is that, despite its accusations about U.S. containment, this process is as much demand-led as it is a Washington-driven strategy. In the past, China had made progress in shifting the strategic terrain by chipping away at America’s global alliances. It was a whisker away from getting the EU arms embargo lifted in 2005. It skillfully exploited differences between the United States and South Korea. It was able to contrast itself with America as the partner of choice for some in South East Asia. And it was cautious not to get dragged down by its old ally, North Korea. But over the last year, not only did China fail to capitalize on U.S.-Japanese disputes over the Futenma airbase, but its stance on Northeast Asian regional security issues actively helped to bridge those differences between Tokyo and Washington, and encouraged closer coordination between Tokyo and Seoul to boot. Many in China’s foreign policy community recognize the problematic implications of last year’s missteps, and recent months have seen some remedial efforts, such as “make nice” investment tours of Europe and India by Chinese leaders, and indications that China is finally reining in Pyongyang. But as the stealth fighter test flight during Defense Secretary Roberts Gates’ recent trip to China attested, powerful constituencies like the Chinese military are no longer happy to temper their behavior even in the lead-up to an important state visit by their president. The party leadership is either unable or unwilling to restrain the more assertive forces in the Chinese system. And with a major political transition looming in 2012, little progress can be expected in the foreseeable future, as “lame duck” leaders wind down and the fifth generation of leaders establishes its credentials. For the most part, this is bad news: global problems will be more difficult to solve with a recalcitrant China, and tensions in East Asia will grow.
But it is providing the United States with some important advantages. Washington’s economic diplomacy may have fallen short at the Seoul G20 summit, but in foreign and security policy, China is the one becoming more isolated while its capacity to mount a bid for regional primacy, let alone global primacy, is being systematically undermined by its current behavior. It is becoming easier for Washington to argue that China’s approach is self-defeating and that a benign international environment for its rise will only exist if Beijing takes on a more constructive international role. There may be an uncomfortable period ahead. But between them, the United States and its friends and allies have the leverage to show Beijing that China has embarked on a losing strategy.
Andrew Small is a Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.