Obviously, it is inconceivable that Chinese policymakers intentionally desired such boomerangs with these recent moves. One possible explanation is that this is simply a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Given the fragmentation and stove-piped decision-making process inside the Chinese national security establishment, lack of policy coordination is certainly a systemic weakness. However, internal disarray is no excuse. The damage done to China’s image and national interests is real and can be long-lasting.
The challenge facing the new leadership of General Secretary Xi Jinping is how to dig China out of its own geopolitical hole. Because of Beijing’s foreign policy missteps in the last three years, China today faces the worst regional environment since Tiananmen. Its relations with Japan are at a record low; China-ASEAN ties have similarly deteriorated due to the South China Sea disputes and China’s heavy-handed use of its clout to divide ASEAN. The Sino-American relationship is increasingly turning into one of strategic rivalry. Even South Korea, which has sought to strengthen Seoul-Beijing ties for two decades, has distanced itself from China because of China’s reluctance or inability to restrain North Korea’s aggressive acts (its latest missile test is but one example).
It is hard to know whether Beijing’s foreign policy establishment sees things the same way. But if they happen to agree with this assessment, they must act quickly to reverse a self-defeating strategy.
The most urgent action item is to stabilize Beijing-Tokyo ties. The actions taken by Beijing to contest Tokyo’s claims to the disputed islands in the East China Sea are fraught with risks of escalation. While they may be designed to force the Japanese to the negotiating table, the Chinese government needs to take extra precaution to avoid dangerous confrontations and escalations. Under current circumstances, the smarter way is not to escalate, but deescalate, so that Beijing can give Tokyo an opportunity to respond. With anti-China sentiments high among a broad segment of Japan’s population and elites, it is unwise to expect Tokyo to meet Chinese escalations with concessions.