We speak of China now as more assertive, confident and sure of its position in the world. And yet wealth and the hard power that has come with it seem in fact to have made China’s behavior more insecure, not less so. Insecurity above all is the more accurate description of China’s diplomatic character at the moment, rather than a newfound confidence.
One can see this most easily not in grand geopolitics but on the granular level of China’s relations with regional powers around its borders. Cambodia stands as a kind of bellwether state. During the late Maoist period, it is now increasingly clear, Cambodia did little without leaders in Beijing knowing. In particular, China’s links with the Khmer Rouge leadership from 1975 on were profound and varied. Pol Pot, according to a superb account in veteran journalist Francis Deron’s Le Procès Des Khmers Rouges, visited Beijing secretly three times: in 1966, in 1970 and then, only two months after seizing power, in June 1975. He had his only ever state visit abroad to Beijing in 1977. Mao Zedong would grant Khieu Samphan, the regime’s Head of State, an audience in 1974 before they had even come to power, and Ieng Sary, who was to become Kampuchea’s Foreign Minister, ran what was in effect a liaison office from Beijing from 1971. Andrew Mertha of Cornell University has just written a further account of the immense amounts of Chinese aid that went to the Khmer Rouge regime. In light of this evidence, it is hard to not see Cambodia during this era as almost akin to a client state. No principles of “non-interference in the affairs of others” stopped China from having a huge say in the way the country was run and how it acted diplomatically.
Four decades later, Cambodia is now a wholly different neighbor. While the main thoroughfare in Phnom Penh is called Mao Zedong Boulevard, the real focus of Cambodians is on business opportunities in Guangdong rather than making political links with stuffy Beijing. And long term Prime Minister Hun Sen plows his country’s own nationalist furrow. Chinese investment and trade are all welcome, but the days of Beijing supremacy are long over. A similar pattern can be seen in Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines and Laos. The era of stark choices between friends and enemies fostered by the Cold War has left a region with blurred allegiances and almost constantly changing loyalties. China can search for leverage in vain in this new context, but it knows than even endless amounts of trade, aid, and financial largesse don’t buy much any longer.
In this context, China’s remaining solid relationships with the DPRK and Pakistan are the exceptions that prove the rule. China as number two in the world is now ironically more isolated than when it was a relatively small player. Having “friends” like the world’s last Stalinist state under its increasingly worrying and capricious young leadership, and Pakistan, riddled with instability and uncertainty, raise the question of why in this sort of neighborhood you would bother having friends at all. But even more concerning is China’s relative impotence in being able to do anything about the DPRK, despite multiple provocations and irritations. The DPRK almost daily shows the limits of Chinese influence over the only country one would expect to see some sort of traction.
In Chinese politics, being number two in the hierarchy was always the worst place to end up. Mao’s various chosen successors all met sticky ends once they were immediately below him in the pecking line. The same could be said for Deng and his first few choices. Number two is a tough place to be. How ironic, therefore, that diplomatically China is finding out that being the world’s second largest economy and almost universally regarded as a sort of heir apparent to the United States’ slipping great power mantle is like being caught between a rock and a hard place. This expectation of prominence and power by outsiders towards China seems to have made the country even more jittery, even more narrowly focused on relatively small strategic issues like its maritime borders, and even more defensive. The simple fact is that the world is still waiting for a bolder statement from China about what its modern role is. So far no one in the country’s ruling elite has dared to try to articulate this. That, more than anything, is a sign of how profound China’s current feeling of insecurity and uncertainty is, under the bluff exterior of all the nationalist posturing.