China: Bad Neighbor?

In Firstpost, Zhu Feng of Peking University’s Center for International & Strategic Studies highlights recent events that have heightened friction between China and the Asia Pacific region and put “unprecedented pressure” on its “good neighbor” policy:

From the territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea to tensions with Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, relationships that were sound, if not always friendly, have now soured.Myanmar’s decision to shelve the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project shocked China. Likewise, the killing of 13 Chinese boat crewmen on the Mekong River in October serves as a stark reminder that China’s presumably peaceful southern land border, which has been untroubled for nearly 20 years, today resembles the most hostile sort of neighborhood.

China’s people and government are especially dismayed by the Mekong killings, which seemed to demonstrate, once again, the government’s inability to protect its citizens from being murdered abroad, despite the country’s newfound global status. As a result, two compelling questions have arisen: Why do China’s neighbours choose to neglect its interests? And why, despite China’s rise, do its authorities seem increasingly unable to secure Chinese lives and commercial interests abroad?

Indeed, China’s neighbours will not be reliably good to Chinese interests unless and until China begins to provide essential public goods – not just commerce, but also full-fledged regional governance based on the rule of law, respect for human rights, and regional economic growth. Otherwise, ruptures such as those at Myitsone and along the Mekong will recur, deepening China’s sense of isolation and panic.

China reached an agreement earlier this week with Laos, Myanmar and Thailand to send patrol ships to protect its interests on the Mekong River, though questions remain over the exact nature of the initiative and how its Southeast Asian partners will contribute. See also CDT coverage of the Myitsone dam project and recent analysis of rising tensions on the South China Sea.