Less than a week into his new job as China’s top leader, Xi Jinping and his team were confronted with the most pressing foreign-policy task on their already crowded agenda: how to counter Washington’s revived focus on Asia, a so-called pivot toward the Pacific that Beijing believes is intended to contain China’s regional influence. In a display of high-profile American diplomacy and soft power, President Barack Obama blitzed through Southeast Asia one a four-day pilgrimage, becoming the first American president to visit Burma and Cambodia—both countries in which Beijing feels it has deep national interests.
Beijing has been irked by Obama’s Southeast Asian road show. Chinese analysts saw it as America’s attempt to consolidate ties with old allies such as Japan, the Philippines, and Thailand, while snaring new friends like Burma. “None of the countries neighboring China is willing to join with Washington to confront Beijing,” declared analyst Wang Yusheng, of the Strategy Research Center at the China International Studies Research Fund, in a recent China Daily editorial. “In fact the specter of an ‘Asian NATO’ has been hovering around China without causing any real concern.” (Washington denies it sees Beijing as an enemy, citing, rather, elements of “both cooperation and competition” in their interaction—as U.S. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon put it just before Obama’s trip—but stressing the long-term need for “a stable and constructive relationship with China.”)
It didn’t take long, however, for regional tensions to erupt after Obama arrived in Cambodia, on which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also had converged for a series of regional meetings. (Although the ASEAN grouping began decades ago as a largely pro-American bloc, over the past decade China has expanded its economic presence and diplomatic influence, especially over newer members such as Cambodia, while Washington was bogged down in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.) On Monday, acrimony broke through to the surface at the ASEAN summit, when the Cambodian hosts declared that the regional bloc had agreed not to raise the issue of South China Sea disputes in international forums. China is entangled in South China Sea maritime disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, and a number of other governments that are trying to negotiate a “code of conduct” for the disputed areas.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino bristled at the host’s attempts to paper over the regional disputes and to describe the shelving of the South China Sea discussion as if it were a consensus view. “For the record, this was not our understanding … we did not realize [this] would be translated into an ASEAN consensus,” he said. The fracas threatened to overshadow the gathering of leaders in Phnom Penh and is the second consecutive ASEAN summit at which discussion of the South China Sea “code of conduct” was pigeonholed— apparently out of deference to Beijing’s opposition to “internationalizing” the issue. The first time was in July, when the lack of agreement prevented the issuing of a joint communiqué for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history.
Whoever controls the South China Sea dominates vast energy resources, abundant marine products, and key international trade routes. China claims nearly the entire area, as well as disputed islands in the East China Sea further north, and over the past year has been increasingly assertive in prosecuting its claims—not just rhetorically but in minor clashes at sea—against competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan.
Beijing says it’s keeping an open mind on the code of conduct issue, but insists that everyone must first comply with a 2002 declaration signed by ASEAN and China stressing that parties should resolve disputes using peaceful means. Chinese officials maintain that other claimants have paid no heed to the 2002 declaration and sought to occupy disputed atolls, “so how can they be expected to comply with a code of conduct?” asked law professor Zhou Hongjun, at the East China University of Politics and Law. Washington and Tokyo have stressed the importance of a code of conduct, and of discussing it in regional meetings, while Beijing prefers to tackle the maritime disputes on a bilateral basis.
The backdrop for these simmering frictions is China’s inexorable rise, America’s scramble to remain a major player in the Pacific, and the shifting power balance between these two powers in economics, diplomacy, and even military development. One big question for China’s new leader, Xi, is how candidly he should acknowledge and promote his nation’s growing global clout.
When the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping launched China’s quasi-capitalist reforms three and a half decades ago, he followed a principle known as tao guang yang hui, which has been translated as “hide your capabilities and bide your time.” This aphorism has characterized China’s low profile in global diplomacy in the 1980s and ’90s. As recently as last April, Foreign Ministry official Le Yucheng cautioned that China may be the world’s second-largest economy, but it’s not the world’s second-strongest country: “China is still a growing country with imbalanced development ... It is not unwilling, but unable, to take on more international responsibilities and fully play the role of a major country.”
Even so, Beijing’s recent assertiveness in promoting its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea has raised the question of whether Deng’s strategy is desirable—or even sustainable—for Beijing anymore. Beijing pundits are increasingly blunt as they champion their nation’s growing muscle. Foreign-policy commentator Wang Yusheng said some analysts considered Obama’s Burma trip “the ‘last trick’ up the White House’s sleeve to contain China.”
He concluded: “[U.S.] global power is declining, but it’s reluctant to accept the fact.”
Even though Xi Jinping’s domestic agenda remains the top priority, he cannot afford to neglect China’s growing nationalistic voices and their impact on foreign affairs.