Mending fences: Will China succeed in its charm offensive?

May 07, 2018 15:46
President Xi warned in no uncertain terms that China would give no quarter whenever or wherever its sovereignty was challenged. Photo: Reuters

The world – in particular, China’s neighbors – has been anxiously watching Beijing’s increasing assertiveness over the last decade, especially since the rise of Xi Jinping. Quite a few countries are taking steps to enhance their own security by linking up with others in a similar situation.

Their concern was heightened last October when the Chinese leader announced that China had entered a new era and would move closer to “the center stage” of the world. Then, after gaining a second term, President Xi warned in no uncertain terms that China would give no quarter whenever or wherever its sovereignty was challenged.

Such messages are meant to strike fear into the hearts of China’s potential adversaries. But they also serve to reinforce concern over China’s intentions on the part of those who disagree with its territorial claims, say, to virtually the whole South China Sea.

The response to what is seen as the China threat has been clear. Thus, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply the Quad, comprising the United States, Japan, India and Australia – all democracies – has re-emerged, meeting for the first time in 10 years.

More recently, Indonesia, the largest country in Southeast Asia, asked Australia – an American ally – to become a member of the ASEAN. Vietnam and Australia have announced the establishment of a strategic partnership while Vietnam is planning to set up a comprehensive partnership with New Zealand.

Vietnam and South Korea have also announced the strengthening of cooperation, especially in the areas of diplomacy, security and defense.

On the Korean peninsula, China’s behavior had, for different reasons, alienated both North Korea, its only formal ally, and South Korea.

Of course, not all diplomatic moves need to be interpreted as aimed at China. Indeed, many countries are simultaneously strengthening their relations with Beijing and trying to work out issues through bilateral talks.

China’s official media often seemed to belittle the countries involved. On Vietnam, the state-owned Global Times newspaper said that Hanoi was being “tactful” in developing ties with major powers. While Vietnam may be interested in joining the Quad, the paper suggested, “it lacks common values to cooperate with the so-called Quad” since Vietnam isn’t a democracy.

The paper also questioned the growing ties between Japan and India. A commentary noted the strengthening of relations between the two but dismissed this development, saying that “the two countries will see their ties cool once cooperation delivers less than expected” and China had little need to worry.

The news of US President Donald Trump’s acceptance of the proposal by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, to a summit meeting caught Beijing by surprise. It highlighted the fact that, on an issue where the Chinese felt that they were playing a central role, they had unknowingly been sidelined.

China decided to take action to mend relations with North Korea, which resulted in a visit to Beijing by Kim and apparently productive talks with Xi.

However, the inter-Korean Panmunjom Declaration of April 27 by North and South Korea left open the possibility that China may not be a participant in talks to formally end the Korean war by replacing the armistice accord with a peace treaty. This, too, must have stung Beijing.

Now, China has woken up. It is belatedly trying to mend fences and ameliorate whatever fears and suspicions there may be. On Korea, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was in Pyongyang last week to affirm to the North Korean leader Chinese interest in the peninsula’s affairs.

China is also eager to improve relations with both India and Japan. Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, was invited to a two-day informal weekend meeting with Xi in Wuhan, in central China, April 27-28. Xi told Modi that he had not invited any other leader to meet outside of Beijing.

On May 6, Premier Li Keqiang flew to Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest country, for discussions with President Joko Widodo. Two days later, he was scheduled to head to Japan for a rare trilateral meeting involving Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Down the line, China is expected to invite Abe to pay a state visit, followed by a return visit to Japan by Xi. Such an exchange of state visits will be a major improvement to Sino-Japan relations, which Japan had been seeking but which China had been reluctant to approve.

But if China continues to be assertive, as suggested by its continued increase in its military budget and the deployment of missiles on its manmade islands in the South China Sea, it cannot expect its neighbors to believe that all is well.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.