Why Are China's Neighbors So Afraid of Her?

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The anti-China riots in Vietnam left at least one Chinese dead and hundreds injured. Local Chinese have been afraid to speak Chinese in Vietnam.

Countries with the same system and ideology are not definitely going to be China’s friends. Russia in the north and Vietnam in the south were once “comrades and brothers,” but they have also been historically unfriendly towards China, which is something to keep in mind…

In fact, it is almost impossible for China to be a hegemon in the international arena. China’s values and philosophy are not convincing to or admired by others, and China has few real allies. Plus, China is beset by a lot of domestic problems. Forget hegemony—though it seems powerful, China is much weaker than it seems, like a giant with feet of clay. However, the impression we have given to the international community is that China is a “tyrant,” and many neighboring countries are beginning to fear and hate China. Over the years, in my travels in China and abroad, I’ve experienced this deeply.

The United States claims it is “rebalancing to Asia,” but it’s been slow to act on this. Why? Because it doesn’t have to—America is waiting for its opportunity! It is waiting for China to mess things up for itself. When China’s relations with neighboring countries have deteriorated one by one, when the Asian countries are beginning to “fear” China, then even if America didn’t want to “rebalance to Asia” the other countries would ask it to return. We should think about this: In a few short years, many Asian countries have come to believe that China is more “hegemonistic” and more frightening than the U.S. We can really escape all responsibility for this?

The injustice is, China hasn’t done anything wrong! And our leaders endlessly “justify” China’s action. But there’s one area where we are guilty. Look at public opinion in China: from netizens to the Foreign Ministry, everyone’s busy talking about defending the Diaoyu Islands, teaching the Philippines a lesson, putting little Vietnam in its place, or joining with Russia to fight the United States. When it comes to diplomacy and China’s relations with her neighbors, everyone is amped up. But after years of talking, what do we have to show for it? Outside of smashing some Japanese cars (which were made in China, and driven by Chinese people on Chinese soil), not only have we not recovered a single inch of territory, but we’ve made the U.S. and Japan move closer to each other. Japan is arming itself, a few poor souls have been caught by the Philippines and threatened with a prison sentence, and now, violent groups in Vietnam are openly killing Chinese people! How is that right?

The last time I went to a TV station to film an international program, I asked a friend why they always dragged out Mr. So-and-so to talk about China’s foreign relations. Not only does he not understand the situation, I said, but he’s full of hatred and violence, totally against the spirit of China’s diplomacy and foreign policy. If I were a foreigner and watched his program, I would think that China is a fascist country, not just a simple hegemon. My friend at the station told me this guy’s show gets high rating. The viewers love it! Moreover, he said, I’ve noticed that if people lean left rather than right on foreign affairs, then even if you’re wrong the authorities won’t be offended. Whereas if we have you on the show, Mr. Yang, what you talk about will be “sensitive”—even if the Foreign Ministry announces the same policy tomorrow.

So let’s imagine for a bit: what if America (which is more powerful than China) had a TV show sponsored by the government where the speakers constantly talked about “sending troops” and “teaching China a lesson.” What would happen? The professor who taught me international relations once said that international relations are like the relationships between people. If you do not understand something, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think about it. Then you’ll understand.

Some of us just do not understand. According to their thinking, once China becomes strong we can recover the disputed territory by force, and wipe clean our “shame.” But in fact, the territorial disputes didn’t start yesterday, although they have really flared up in the past few years. There are many complex historical reasons for the disputes. Of course, in our opinion, the problem is that the United States doesn’t want China to be strong, so it gets China’s smaller neighbors to stir up trouble to contain China’s rise. But to people in many other countries, it’s the exact opposite: China is strong and is preparing to change the status quo by force—China is going to bully those smaller, weaker countries.

Of course, this isn’t true. But there’s one thing we can’t deny: many of the government-controlled media outlets have clearly revealed that kind of thinking. It seems right to us: if we cannot recover China’s territory, then why do we have an army? Why did China become strong? But people in other countries will naturally be worried, and they will prepare to join together and even urge America to “rebalance to Asia.”

We have a clear “Cold War mentality”: When a small country fights with us or causes trouble, then it is secretly supported by the United States. It’s as if China is the only country on earth that is really independent, unafraid to stand up even to stronger countries. No, we assume that other countries have to find a patron before they can fight with us. How big of a “tyrant” do you have to be to force small countries to cling to the U.S. for support before daring to argue with you? In fact, in modern international relations it’s difficult to use big guns as your only source of support. “A just cause enjoys abundant support while an unjust cause finds little support”— this is the slogan we proposed and we should remember it. China has never been afraid of being bullied by strong countries and in fact has been bullied by other countries in the past. But our smaller neighbors are the same way.

Let’s return to the question: The violence in Vietnam was horrifying, and we cannot help but think of the sad history of anti-China sentiment in Vietnam. We cannot let the thugs escape the law, and Vietnam must provide compensation for all the economic losses. Vietnam must also accept responsibility for the casualties. Vietnam must punish the rioters and promise to China that no similar incidents will occur in the future.

However, as a rising power, we should also take some time to reflect. President Xi said, “There’s no gene for invasion in the Chinese people’s blood.” China does not seek hegemony; this has been emphasized many times. But our official media as well as social media do appear to have the “gene” for verbal abuse, if not hegemony. The media should align itself with the speech of President Xi, instead of adding fuel to the fire on international issues just for the sake higher ratings and more clicks. In addition, when stressing the relations between big powers (like Europe, Russia, and the United States), we should not forget the most important thing: improving our relations with neighboring countries. As President Xi said, “A far-off relative is not as good as a close neighbor.” China should make greater efforts to keep good relations with its neighbors, putting aside prejudice and historical baggage, in order to gradually adapt to its role as a big country.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at www.yanghengjun.com.

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