Anti-China Rhetoric Isn’t Causing Problems, China Is


Over at The Editor’s blog last week, Erin Zimmerman wrote a much discussed piece arguing that the “anti-China rhetoric” of regional actors in forums like the Shangri-La Dialogue was forcing Beijing to lash out more aggressively in the region to appease nationalistic sentiment at home. As a result, she argued that the best way to reduce regional tensions and encourage China to act more constructively in the region is to stop “highlighting political grievances” at these forums. Instead, the region should move to more firmly entrench China into Asia’s existing multilateral institutions, thereby “incentivizing Beijing to demonstrate its positive influence in the region.”

Her argument seems to have touched on a nerve of many judging from the comments on the website and made to this author personally on Twitter and email. In some rather extreme examples, many were derisive of the fact that The Diplomat would even publish the article.

I disagree. Zimmerman makes a strong and coherent argument expressing a viewpoint that is held by many in the region including but not limited to China and its government. As such, it is an integral part of the regional debate, and I am proud of the fact that Zimmerman was kind enough to submit it to The Diplomat and we were able to feature it on the site.

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Which is not to say that I agreed with the article’s arguments, and I don’t appear to be alone in dissenting. Thus, with the spirit of a healthy debate in mind, I felt it worthwhile to outline where I disagree with the piece.

Zimmerman’s first major argument is that the concerns that regional states are expressing about China’s conduct in regional forums is what is fueling China to act so provocatively in the first place. For example, in the context of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Zimmerman argues that Japan and America’s “comments may prove to be provocative, in that they are likely to push Beijing into pursuing the very same behaviors that they condemn.”

This is the kind of circular logic that one often finds the CCP itself employing to try and obfuscate which party is to blame in a dispute. Unfortunately, it is logically unsustainable. What Zimmerman is essentially arguing is that other countries expressing concerns about China’s actions is what is causing Beijing to take these actions in the first place. But other countries expressing concern about China’s actions cannot be the cause of the actions any more than a murderer can be acquitted for his crime by arguing that he only murdered his victim because the state accused him of murdering that person.

Even the example of the murderer doesn’t do the argument justice. Essentially what Zimmerman is arguing is that the victims of China’s assertiveness are to blame for the assertiveness itself because they publicly express concern about it. Thus, the apt parallel from the criminal justice system would be accusing the victim of a violent assault of bringing it upon him or herself because they reported it to local law enforcement. If only the victim hadn’t reported the crime, the crime would have never happened in the first place. This isn’t a chicken and egg kind of case where cause and effect is difficult to ascertain. Countries are expressing concern about what China has done and is continuing to do. China’s actions are causing the criticisms to be made; not the other way around.

Besides arguing that regional states should stop speaking out about China’s actions, Zimmerman’s other major argument is that “Multilateral forums can and should be put to better use as a means of positively engaging with China. This means not highlighting political grievances and using these events to more firmly entrench China as part of a larger Asian community.”

This argument too employs a peculiar logic. The purpose of multilateral institutions is to bring together countries to discuss various problems in hopes of finding solutions to them. In the case of security forums like Shangri-La Dialogue, the purpose is to bring together Asian nations to discuss security challenges in hopes of finding peaceful solutions to them.

The first part of Zimmerman’s argument, however, is that states should abstain from using these forums to voice their concerns because that is what’s causing China’s provocations in the first place. But this is the exact purpose of holding these forums. If countries agree to no longer use these forums for the purposes they were created—namely, to discuss challenges in hopes of resolving them—then why would they want to expand and deepen the institutions themselves? This would be akin to expanding the World Cup after banning the game of football, or a country launching a prison expansion program right after it nullified its penal code and dismantled its criminal justice system.

The argument that more firmly entrenching China into the existing order would mollify it is also hard to reconcile with the fact that China opposes this order. As President Xi articulated at CICA back in May, and General Wang reiterated at the Shangri-La Dialogue, China views the current regional security order as a Cold War archaism. It is therefore calling for it to be dismantled and replaced by a new order based on the principle of Asia for Asians. This would presumably be centered on CICA where the U.S. is excluded and Japan and the Philippines have only observer status.

Similarly, China has proposed the creation of a “multilateral” Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. News reports suggest that the bank would have initial funding of $50 billion and China would be the majority stakeholder. By all accounts, the AIIB is designed to reduce the influence of the Asian Development which China perceives as being too dominated by Japan and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

If China was interested in playing a larger role in the existing regional order it could easily use this substantial funding for the ADB, and thus give itself more status within that institution. However, it has chosen to create its own alternative that seems aimed at excluding Japan, the United States and India, who could potentially threaten China’s majority stakeholder status. As one economist explained it: “China wants to play a more pivotal role in these kinds of organizations — so the best way is to establish an organization by itself.”

It therefore isn’t at all certain that China would willingly accept a larger role in a regional order that it is intent on upending. But even if it did agree to this role, it’s difficult to imagine it valuing its new position more than it values securing its core interests in the East and South China Seas. More likely, China would use its greater influence in these institutions to prevent others from using them to hinder its larger objectives.

There are other slightly less central but still immensely important issues with Zimmerman’s argument. For example, she contends China is forced to act provocatively when under external criticism because it has a nationalistic populace. However, the Chinese government itself has spent years carefully cultivating this nationalism in order to legitimate its continued grip on power. Thus, Zimmerman is essentially asking other nations to accept China’s provocations in order to advance the greater good of perpetuating one party rule in China.

It’s not clear why China should be given such an exulted status. After all, the CCP is hardly the only government in the region that faces nationalistic sentiments at home. Vietnam’s Communist Party faces similar pressures and Vietnamese nationalism is highly interwoven with defending the country from Chinese encroachment. Thus, why shouldn’t China allow Vietnam to retake the islands Beijing took from it in the 1970s in order to help the Vietnamese Communist Party’s popularity at home?

Nor is the CCP in the least bit accommodating about the nationalistic pressures other governments face. It hardly withheld criticism of the Vietnamese government when anti-China protests broke out last month. More notably, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces nationalistic pressures from within his own political party and core constituencies. Yet, China doesn’t seem understanding in the slightest when Abe indulges these audiences with visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

And this gets to the central paradox of the constant concern one hears about how “anti-China rhetoric” in the region is forcing Beijing to provoke. Namely, that China is the main transgressor in perpetuating anti-foreign rhetoric. Take the example of the United States, for instance. In April 1997, for example, Russia and China issued a joint statement saying that “No country should seek hegemony, practice power politics or monopolize international affairs.”

In May 1999, Xinhua ran an op-ed entitled “Global Democratization — Camouflage of US Hegemony.” Not surprisingly, the article said that the U.S. created a “global democratization” to help “build a single-polared world and to strengthen its hegemony,” In December 2011, China claimed that Bashar al-Assad’s massacre of his own citizens was an attempt by the U.S. to maintain its unipolar hegemony over the Middle East. When Obama created an interdepartmental task force to enforce trade agreements in March 2012, China lashed out at the U.S. for seeking world trade hegemony. When Western leaders decided against going to the Sochi Olympics because of Russia’s anti-gay laws, China accused them of arrogance.

In March of this year, China’s state media said that the U.S. and West had orchestrated “an anti-Russia color revolution” in Ukraine and also blamed them for the violence in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Later, in response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, it said that the U.S. was trying to provoke Russia into a new Cold War. Last month it blamed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s massacre of thousands of war prisoners on the United States.

Despite the absurdity of most of these claims, and their frequency, no one ever argues that China should temper back its anti-American or anti-Japanese rhetoric. And certainly no one suggests that this rhetoric gives America or Japan license to act aggressively in the region.

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