One of the elementary rules of foreign policy is when you are in a hole, stop digging. But judging by their recent behavior, Beijing’s foreign policy mandarins and national security establishment are clearly in violation of this rule. Despite the diplomat heat China has received for its tough stance on territorial disputes in recent months, the Chinese Foreign Ministry apparently seemed to believe that it could strengthen Chinese claims symbolically by issuing a new passport containing a map that claims the disputed maritime areas in the South China Sea and the contested territories along the Sino-Indian border. The reaction was predictable. Southeast Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, protested loudly. India retaliated by promising to stamp visas containing its own map on Chinese passports.
At around the same time as the diplomatic uproar over the new Chinese passport design, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) conducted its first successful landing and take-off operations from its retrofitted aircraft carrier. The televised test might have boosted the Chinese military’s image and self-confidence, but the message this event sent around the region, given China’s hardline position on territorial disputes and its neighbors’ fears of the PLA’s growing military capabilities, cannot be very reassuring.
But that is not the end of the actions taken by China recently that are likely to cost Beijing’s new government dearly. A few days before Japan’s Diet elections on December 16, which are expected to produce a right-wing government with deep antipathy toward Beijing, the Chinese government escalated its challenge to Japan’s territorial claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands by flying an official, albeit unarmed, maritime surveillance plane over the airspace of the disputed islands. As expected, the move incensed Tokyo and can only be expected to bolster the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) chances and lend more credence to their call for a tougher policy toward China.
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.
Clearly, Beijing may have to wait for the outcome of the Diet elections on December 16. Should the LDP win, the Chinese government will be smart to send conciliatory signals to the new Japanese government. Of course, Shinzo Abe, the leader of the LDP, has taken a hardline on China during the campaign, but he should be given a chance to show his sensibility and pragmatism. China will not hurt itself by displaying some flexibility and willingness to compromise initially. If Japan rejects such friendly overtures, China will have ample time to play a game of tit-for-tat.
Parallel to its efforts to stabilize Sino-Japanese relations, Beijing’s second policy priority is to defuse its tensions with ASEAN over the South China Sea disputes. Chinese policymakers must first realize that its stance on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea has painted Beijing into a corner. The historical claims are increasingly difficult to defend. The insistence on bilateral negotiations, not multilateral ones, looks too self-serving. The use of a proxy such as Cambodia to undermine ASEAN’s unity on the South China Sea disputes may be a temporary tactical success, but it comes with long-term strategic costs and will ultimately be futile.
A bold move for the new Chinese government to take is to do a U-turn on the South China Sea. It can do so by announcing its willingness to negotiate in a multilateral setting and adhere to existing international laws, not historical claims. This dramatic change of policy will not necessarily produce an outcome totally unfavorable to China. Because most of Vietnam and the Philippines’ claims are equally weak under existing international laws, shifting China’s position will not necessarily strengthen their claims. The practical effect will be prolonged negotiations that can defuse the tensions – and repair China’s tattered image as a bully.
Putting U.S.-China ties on a more solid footing and reversing the dangerous dynamics of strategic competition is more difficult and requires steps that Mr. Xi may not be able to take immediately. The factors driving the U.S. and China toward strategic rivalry are not hard to see: mutual distrust, a shift in relative balance of power, China’s military modernization, and a lack of transparency in China’s domestic political system. It is impossible to address all these factors, and some of them defy short-term solutions. However, Mr. Xi will find that the immediate key to improving Sino-American relations will not be found in China’s policy toward the United States, but in its policy toward its neighbors. It is the fears China has aroused among its neighbors that have given the United States the strategic leverage to deal with China and to view China from darker lenses. So it will be China’s success in reassuring its neighbors and the United States, not with rhetoric but real policy changes, that will help dig Beijing out of its current geopolitical hole.