China: The Bully With an Image Problem

China’s brinksmanship with Japan in the Diaoyu Islands crisis, which took an elevated turn last week, reflects a broader assertiveness over territorial issues that has put the PRC at odds with a number of its neighbors recently. Tensions have run high with the Philippines since the summer, when one Chinese ship rammed a fishing boat and another ran aground on a reef in the South China Sea. Beijing has interfered with Vietnam’s attempts to pursue oil exploration in the disputed waters, prompting public demonstrations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City earlier this month. And controversial new passports issued by China – containing a map which incorporates the long tongue of the South China Sea and even the Himalayas as part of its territory –  have prompted diplomatic countermeasures across the region.

Writing for The National Interest, James Clad and Robert A. Manning claim that Beijing’s provocative moves have backfired:

A joke now making the rounds in Asia asks, “who is America’s most effective diplomat in Asia?” The punch line brings knowing laughter: “‘Mr. Beijing.’ Yes, Mr. Bob Beijing is playing America’s best hand.”

The joke’s sting lies in the law of unintended consequences. Beijing’s increasingly provocative moves include cutting a Vietnamese seismic-exploration ship’s cables, disrupting oil exploration, declaring the entire South China Sea under Chinese sovereignty and making some hitherto unpublicized but very sensitive challenges to Malaysia. All seem tailor-made to produce exactly what China says it doesn’twant: a de facto anti-China coalition backed discreetly by the United States and reaching from India to the Sea of Japan.

As if to put an exclamation point on it, the Philippine foreign minister recently said that if Japan rearmed and abandoned its pacifist constitution, Manila “would welcome that very much.”

Meanwhile, The Diplomat’s Minxin Pei suggests a few steps China can take to dig itself out of its diplomatic hole:

The most urgent action item is to stabilize Beijing-Tokyo ties. The actions taken by Beijing to contest Tokyo’s claims to the disputed islands in the East China Sea are fraught with risks of escalation. While they may be designed to force the Japanese to the negotiating table, the Chinese government needs to take extra precaution to avoid dangerous confrontations and escalations. Under current circumstances, the smarter way is not to escalate, but deescalate, so that Beijing can give Tokyo an opportunity to respond. With anti-China sentiments high among a broad segment of Japan’s population and elites, it is unwise to expect Tokyo to meet Chinese escalations with concessions.

Parallel to its efforts to stabilize Sino-Japanese relations, Beijing’s second policy priority is to defuse itstensions with ASEAN over the South China Sea disputes.   Chinese policymakers must first realize that its stance on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea has painted Beijing into a corner.  The historical claims are increasingly difficult to defend.  The insistence on bilateral negotiations, not multilateral ones, looks too self-serving.  The use of a proxy such as Cambodia to undermine ASEAN’s unity on the South China Sea disputes may be a temporary tactical success, but it comes with long-term strategic costs and will ultimately be futile.

A bold move for the new Chinese government to take is to do a U-turn on the South China Sea.  It can do so by announcing its willingness to negotiate in a multilateral setting and adhere to existing international laws, not historical claims.   This dramatic change of policy will not necessarily produce an outcome totally unfavorable to China.  Because most of Vietnam and the Philippines’ claims are equally weak under existing international laws, shifting China’s position will not necessarily strengthen their claims.  The practical effect will be prolonged negotiations that can defuse the tensions – and repair China’s tattered image as a bully.