China’s Diplomacy Anxiety

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Chinese have recently been paying more attention to diplomatic issues, with discussion on politics and diplomacy proliferating in social media. And many people aren’t happy with the way things have been going.

Take the attack on two Chinese vessels on the Mekong River, which resulted in the deaths of 13 crew members late last year. There has been a growing sense in online discussions that Chinese diplomacy in that region has failed. Aside from the fact that the culprits remain at large, the attacks have also reminded many Chinese of how tense things are in Southeast Asia.

For a start, there are concerns over Burma, the Philippines and Vietnam. Concerns over Burma stem from what appears to be a democratization process unfolding there, a development that could affect the traditionally close Sino-Burma relations. Already it has been noted that Burma’s ruling junta has halted a controversial Chinese hydropower project in the country, leading many to wonder what will happen next.

Arguably more significant has been the issue of oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea by Vietnam and the Philippines, which has led to the expulsion of Chinese fishermen from some waters. In some cases, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has been left only able to protest the Philippine and Vietnamese moves, provoking derision among many Chinese for the “weak” response.

One reason for the frustration among Chinese may be the contrast in China’s diplomatic and economic prowess. Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, responsible for China’s foreign policy planning, attended a forum on April 10. During the forum, he noted that China is the world’s second largest economy, but he didn’t suggest that it was the second strongest country. Meanwhile, Luo Zhaohui, director general at the department of Asian affairs, was asked by a web user about China’s “soft stance” regarding the South China Sea. He responded: “We won’t compromise on the issue of sovereignty, and advocate the primary ownership…The timing to resolve the issue is still not ripe yet…Diplomacy is an art and we have to use both soft and hard measures to solve the issues.”

His words were interpreted by the media as suggesting that China will use both soft and hard diplomacy as necessary. Some analysts went as far as to speculate that China will use military force to resolve the South China Sea disputes once Xi Jinping succeeds Hu Jintao as president during the leadership transition later this year.

Certainly, the growth in the internet has made diplomacy more transparent in some ways, including in China. But as many Chinese have had their eyes opened, what they see is a country whose closest friends are Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Syria – nations viewed by many others as dangerous. Although Russia and China are ostensibly allies, ordinary Chinese don’t think that Russia can be trusted. As a result, a growing number of Chinese I speak with these days believe that China’s leaders have failed to reflect the public’s views in its diplomacy, including the decision at the United Nations to veto condemnation of the atrocities in Syria.

Chinese leaders are no doubt aware of the Chinese public’s “diplomacy anxiety.” The problem is that making changes will take time, meaning that for now at least, China can’t simply abandon a foreign policy track that it has been pursuing for years.

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