As China’s President Xi Jinping asserts a new normal in Asia — one featuring a more belligerent Chinese presence — he is digging a deep diplomatic hole. The backlash in Asia may have been guarded, but the region’s minnows are getting feistier.
For example, at a June meeting hosted by China, ASEAN foreign ministers issued a draft communique that embarrassed the hosts by suggesting — get ready for this bombshell — “what is happening in the South China Sea … is an important issue in the relations and cooperation between ASEAN and China.”
The ministers were not exactly being tendentious because this is the consensus of every sentient observer of regional affairs. Soon after this cheeky draft statement appeared, however, it was expunged, apparently because Beijing was deeply miffed at this sign of ASEAN impudence, muted as it may have been.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo took a tougher stand, holding a recent Cabinet meeting on a warship in the Natuna Islands and deploying more military assets to a resource-rich area vulnerable to Beijing’s grandiose ambitions.
The recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissing Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, Seoul’s decision to allow the U.S. to station a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) radar in South Korea and the gestures of defiance by ASEAN and Indonesia are portrayed as setbacks for Xi, potentially harmful to his standing in China. But this underestimates the power of a man nicknamed the “chairman of everything.” Xi has accumulated and consolidated more power than any leader since Deng Xiaoping and has carefully cultivated a Mao-like cult following.
The notion that Xi is threatened by such diplomatic road bumps is a bad misreading of the situation in China. Threats from without are routinely invoked to rally the nation around the flag and party, and presented as compelling evidence that China’s enemies are intent on sabotaging Beijing’s quest to regain what it thinks is its rightful place as regional helmsman. The reaction in China to the South China Sea ruling has focused on the bias and illegitimacy of the proceedings, and how the international status quo is designed to keep China down. Much has also been made of America’s unhelpful interventionism in the dispute, fanning regional discord. So such diplomatic setbacks actually strengthen Xi’s position and confer legitimacy on the state narrative of encirclement.
Asian governments surely want America to stay engaged because they fear Beijing’s designs and prefer playing one power off the other. The U.S. would prefer bolder defiance and is trying to nudge fence-sitters into taking sides, but it’s a tough sell for leaders who are not keen to antagonize a nation they must come to terms with.
India is the big prize Washington covets in its neo-containment policy designed to constrain China’s hegemonic ambitions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama have met seven times, with evident good chemistry, despite espousing diametrically opposed political views on almost everything that matters. But the forces favoring nonalignment in India remain deeply entrenched, frustrating policymakers in both nations who are eager to deepen the strategic partnership.
At the June meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), China vetoed India’s application to join a body that was originally established to sanction and isolate India for its nuclear bomb testing. Since the early 2000s, Washington has leaned on NSG members to lift sanctions on India and provide access to what it needs for peaceful uses of nuclear energy. America seeks to woo India as a counter to China, wants help in counterterrorism efforts and is eager to profit from New Delhi’s ambitious plans to ramp up nuclear power generation. It accepts India’s assurances that it will not resume testing, but this promise falls short of a treaty commitment.
Japan has been at odds with the U.S. over this issue since India has not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Tokyo is not convinced by India’s reassurances. Entrenched skepticism in Japan about the wisdom of cutting India slack on its nuclear weapons program is offset, however, by Abe’s advocacy of lucrative reactor deals for Japan’s nuclear champions: Hitachi, Toshiba and Mitsubishi.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi, astutely observed in the June 29 edition of the Indian Express that China’s action in vetoing New Delhi’s bid for membership is more about America than India, signaling that it will not acquiesce to Washington writing and redefining the rules of the international order at its whim. He downplayed the NSG rejection, noting that India can get whatever nuclear energy components it wants because of U.S. arm-twisting of other suppliers, meaning there is no advantage in becoming a member. Mehta warned against those in India seeking to manipulate Beijing’s veto into a closer security relationship with the US.
From Beijing’s perspective, international law and institutions facilitate and reinforce U.S. hegemony. So why abide? The NSG veto may prove a Pyrrhic victory, driving India into a U.S. embrace, but that is far from a done deal and China has laid down a marker: It seeks a greater voice in deciding the rules of the game. Moreover, it has signaled that just because Washington wants something, the days of unilaterally amending rules to keep up with its swerving foreign policy are numbered.
Or are they?
In an article published by The Atlantic in June, Howard French, former bureau chief for The New York Times in Tokyo and Shanghai and currently professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism, dissects the China juggernaut narrative, highlighting stark demographic realities. He argues that China will grow old before it gets rich. This looming social crisis involving a rapidly aging population (blowback from the one child policy) that poses numerous policy challenges. Projections reported in The Atlantic suggest that by 2050, the number of Chinese older than 65 will reach 329 million. Beginning in 2020, the state will have to ramp up social welfare programs for an exploding elderly population, crimping military budgets. Moreover, there is a shrinking pool of potential military recruits as many ignore patriotic calls to duty and seek better options amid looming labor shortages.
Demographics may not be destiny, but a “geriatric peace” in a rapidly aging East Asia offers a silver glimmer of hope. But such optimism comes up against Asia’s rapidly escalating arms race, which risks igniting the kindling of heightened tensions at a number of flash points. Technological advances are enabling modern militaries to do more with less — so, even without weaponized walker frames, there is still plenty to worry about.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.