NEW DELHI – In clear reprisal for Canada’s U.S.-sought arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter, China has detained two Canadians on charges of undermining its national security but has shied away from taking any action against the United States. This is in keeping with Beijing’s record of acting only against the weaker side, even if it happens to be a U.S. ally.
For example, when the U.S. installed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, China used its economic leverage to retaliate against South Korea but not against the U.S. The heavy-handed economic sanctioning of South Korea in 2017, partially extending into this year, illustrated Beijing’s use of trade as a political weapon.
Similarly, after U.S. President Donald Trump in March signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages official visits between the U.S. and the island, China staged war games against Taiwan and bribed the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso to break diplomatic ties with Taipei. The U.S., however, faced no consequences.
Now, while intensifying a punitive campaign against Canada, Beijing has adopted a tempered approach toward Washington, although Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou at the behest of U.S. prosecutors for alleged bank fraud related to Iran-sanctions violations. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has bent over backward to emphasize that, while confrontation hurts the U.S.-China relationship, cooperation benefits both countries.
Such is the Chinese effort to mollify the power behind Meng’s arrest that, in recent days, Beijing has made trade-related concessions to help defuse tensions with Washington. Contrast this with the way China has followed up on its threats of retaliatory steps against Canada by arresting a former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig, and then detaining Michael Spavor, a Canadian writer and entrepreneur living in the Chinese province of Liaoning. Meng’s release on bail apparently has not allayed Beijing’s anger against Ottawa.
Such behavior fits with the classic definition of a bully, whether in school or on the international stage — one that engages in unwanted, aggressive behavior by taking advantage of an imbalance of power.
In fact, with Chinese foreign policy preferring strong-arm methods over mutual understanding, China’s neighbors increasingly view it as a bully. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis correctly said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that China pursues a “tribute nation” approach to other nations and aspires for “veto power” over their sovereign decisions.
This approach helps to explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI) has started to run into resistance in a number of countries. Essentially an imperial project aimed at making real the mythical Middle Kingdom, the BRI has sought to lure nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit.
Nations neglected by multilateral lending institutions initially flocked to the BRI. But after smooth sailing, the project has started to encounter strong headwinds, as partner-countries worry about Beijing ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. China has extended huge loans to financially weak states, only to strengthen its leverage through debt entrapment.
China’s penchant for bullying also explains why it essentially remains a friendless power. It lacks any real strategic allies. Indeed, the more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining genuine allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the U.S. maintains globally.
China’s increasing authoritarianism at home under Xi has fostered an overtly muscular foreign policy approach that has counterproductively contributed to China’s lonely rise. A senior U.S. official warned in 2016 that Beijing risks erecting “a Great Wall of self-isolation.”
China, a trade cheat that has also employed nontariff tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia and the Philippines, is now getting a taste of its own medicine. With Meng’s arrest, the U.S. showed that it has more powerful nontariff weapons. China’s elites are rattled — angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while traveling to the West.
Meng’s arrest was significant for another reason. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter says in a recent Harvard University essay, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of Xi’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh.
The fact that Meng’s arrest coincided with the Trump-Xi dinner meeting on Dec. 1 in Buenos Aires signaled to Beijing, however unintentionally, that others can pay it back in the same coin.
More importantly, Trump has shown how active U.S. pressure on China, as opposed to imploration or admonition, can yield concessions. Without the U.S. withdrawing its 10 percent tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods, Beijing has begun lifting, following the Buenos Aires talks, its restrictions on imports of American food, energy and cars.
These restrictions had been placed in retaliation for the U.S. imposition of 10 percent tariffs. The U.S. threat to increase tariffs from 10 percent to 25 percent and possibly extend them to all imports from China forced Beijing’s hand.
This underscores that China respects strength and resolve. It is also a pointer on how other powers should seek to deal with China on a regular basis so as to improve the bully’s behavior.
When a nation pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China only ups the ante. Deference to China usually invites bullying, while standing up to it draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and shore up cooperation.
Canada would do well to remember this fact as it grapples with the escalation of the diplomatic feud by a country that seeks to play the aggrieved victim while acting as the bully.
Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.