Commentary / Japan

China won't win friends by flexing its muscles

by Frank Ching

China showed in its Sept. 3 military parade that it wants to be viewed not just as an economic power but as a major military and diplomatic player as well. And, while it trumpeted its desire for peace, the display of its military prowess is bound to spur concern in other capitals.

China has sought to seize the moral high ground on issues such as the refugee crisis in Europe, castigating Washington for triggering instability and civil wars through its policy of regime change in the Middle East.

In Asia, which China sees as its own backyard, it has fanned the flames of animosity toward Japan, emphasizing atrocities committed in the 1930s and 1940s.

This message came loud and clear from the military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. And yet, aside from South Korea, whose president, Park Geun-hye, attended the parade, China has little to show for its efforts.

In fact, the latest Pew Research Center survey of 15,313 people in 10 Asia-Pacific nations and the United States conducted from April 6 to May 27 shows that “despite historical and territorial frictions, Asia-Pacific publics tend to view their regional neighbors in a positive light, with Japan judged most favorably,” in the words of Bruce Stokes, the center’s director.

“Japan enjoys a relatively positive image, except in China and South Korea,” Stokes wrote.

While 57 percent of the region’s public have a favorable view of China, that number is dwarfed by the 71 percent with a favorable view of Japan. Slightly more than half — 51 percent — have a favorable view of India.

Interestingly, however, as Stokes wrote in an article posted on the Pew website, “these same publics also express limited confidence in the region’s most prominent national leaders when it comes to their handling of international issues.”

Asked about confidence in foreign leaders’ ability to “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” only 43 percent indicated confidence in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 47 percent in Chinese President Xi Jinping and 39 percent in Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.

One source of unfavorable ratings for China is its territorial disputes.

A majority of publics in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and India — all of which have territorial disputes with China — indicated that they were very or somewhat concerned by these disputes. Even in countries not party to the disputes, such as South Korea and Australia, a majority indicated concern.

To be sure, the surveys were taken before the military parade. But China had inundated the world with propaganda for much of the previous year, with its diplomats on all continents writing articles and giving speeches excoriating Japan’s wartime behavior.

Japan had emphasized its peaceful postwar record and, in 2008, when then-Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Tokyo, the two sides issued a joint statement that included the following paragraph:

“The Chinese side expressed its positive evaluation of Japan’s consistent pursuit of the path of a peaceful country and Japan’s contribution to the peace and stability of the world through peaceful means over more than 60 years since World War II.”

Today, unfortunately, China’s attention appears to focus entirely upon events that occurred 70 or 80 years ago.

It is difficult to assess the practical impact of China’s popularity, or lack thereof, on its neighbors, but China has suffered several reverses recently.

Myanmar some years ago surprised many by suspending China’s Myitsone dam project. Sri Lanka suspended a $1.4 billion Port City project after a new president assumed office, and in another blow to China, Bangladesh last month indicated that it favored Japan for an $8 billion port and power plant. Indonesia, which reportedly was leaning toward China rather than Japan for a high-speed rail system, decided in August to abandon the project.

So far, China has been able to avoid entanglement in Middle Eastern disputes. The recent abduction of a Chinese national by the Islamic State militant group, however, shows that China may be sucked into such disputes, despite its reluctance. Such involvement, in turn, is likely to affect the way China is viewed by other countries.

While the U.S. and other Western countries may condemn China on human rights grounds, the country’s treatment of its minorities, particularly of Uighurs in Xinjiang, who are Muslims, may impact public opinion in countries with sizable Muslim populations, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

Other countries judge Japan — and China — by what it does today rather than what happened several generations ago. China should do the same.

Frank Ching is a veteran journalist who focuses on Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. He can be contacted at Frank.ching@gmail.com. Twitter: @FrankChing1