The much-anticipated meeting between top US and China foreign policy officials has come and gone with only the great gaps between the two to show for it. Despite growing US angst and opposition, China is proceeding apace toward its goal of regional and eventual world dominance.
As Graham Allison has prophesied “unless it crashes or cracks up,” China will be—as Lee Kuan Yew once put it– “the biggest player in the history of the world.” ‘Crashing’ or ‘cracking up’ seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. But there is another obstacle that could threaten its ambitions or at least the timing of reaching its goals. That potential obstacle is multinational opposition of the US-led West –and important countries in Asia. To achieve what it views as its rightful destiny sooner rather than later it needs regional stability –meaning a managed balance with the U.S. and its supporters. It has to avoid provoking a coordinated backlash that could combine resources and share the strategic task of containing or constraining it.
Such blowback regarding China’s policies and actions—particularly those in the South China and East China Seas– is rapidly producing an incipient loose coalition that could do just that—the Quad Plus. Indeed, some of Asia is welcoming –and even facilitating a continued U.S. military presence and Taiwan is even trying to insert itself into the equation.
The choice for China is not about right or wrong or changing goals. It is about where and when to exercise restraint. The lack of it -or its preciseness- is providing an opening for its US-led competitors to mobilize a coalition against it. Indeed the US strategy of painting China as a threat to its neighbours and ‘the’ international order is gaining ground. The Quad and its activities are obviously aimed at containing China’s rise. One of its core tenets is “_ _ to prioritize the role of international law – – as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and facilitate collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Sea.”
China’s actions in those seas including its new law authorizing its coast guard to use force to defend its “sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction” have nudged Indonesia and Vietnam towards the US camp. Even the Philippines– which had been deftly won over in the soft power contest– is now having second thoughts about downgrading its alliance with the U.S. There is growing support for the decision of the South China Sea International Arbitration Tribunal invalidating China’s historic claim and the potential of more legal action by Vietnam. European powers are even buying into the US strategy and its myth that China is a threat to commercial freedom of navigation.
Similarly, China’s actions and the new law have strengthened the US-Japan alliance and provided an excuse for their militarization of the East China Sea.
China is dealing with these challenges individually by exploiting fundamental differences in interests and values between Quad members; and using economics and its astute diplomacy to prevail over legalities. But dealing with them all together, combined all at once may be too much even for China. At the least these ‘thousand pin pricks’ will slow China’s march towards its goal.
China has declared that it does not seek confrontation with the U.S. or dominance of the region. It needs to demonstrate this –at least for the time being.
The struggle for now is diplomatic and economic –not military– although that possibility and the disaster it would cause for all concerned lurks in the background. China needs to change its approach to the region and the South China and East China Seas in particular. It needs to do what the U.S. does not – work ‘with the grain’. In particular, China needs to up its diplomacy and drop its in your face wolf warrior approach.
As Kevin Rudd says “an effective foreign policy means bringing countries with you rather than alienating them. It means respecting the region as important in its own right, and making Southeast Asia a core part of its diplomatic priorities”, not ignoring or trying to divide it. China should not take Southeast Asian nations for granted or push them to ‘choose’.
If China continues with its increasingly belligerent and militarist approach, it could well snatch defeat from the jaws of victory or at least make it much more difficult to achieve. If it plays its cards right, the only country that can prevent China from achieving its goals is China itself. Slow and steady—or in international relations terms– restraint and patience — will win the race.