The Debate | Opinion

Beware China’s ‘Barbarian Handlers’

A recent appeal by a senior PLA officer should be read with appropriate caveats in mind.

By William Choong for
Beware China’s ‘Barbarian Handlers’
Credit: AP Photo/Kin Cheung

Writing in the New York Times recently, People”s Liberation Army Senior Colonel Zhou Bo made an impassioned plea for China and the United States to dampen down the risk of what he called the “real danger” of a “conflict that neither side has anticipated or possibly control.”

One has to get a sense of the man to get a better understanding of his argument. I have known Zhou Bo for years, by virtue of the fact that he was a key member of successive PLA delegations which attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, a high-level defense ministerial forum organized by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).

If there was a contest of “barbarian handlers” — experts who propagate China’s worldview to foreigners, and defend it — senior colonel Zhou would be right up there. He is articulate, speaks with eloquence, and quite interestingly, with a clipped British accent.

Years ago, I witnessed how he went hammer and tongs with Japanese officials, after the latter alleged that a Chinese naval ship had “locked on” its fire-control radar to a Japanese vessel (I empathized with the Japanese; the senior colonel is most ebullient at full pelt). Often togged in the blue uniform of the PLA Air Force, he jokes that it is ironic that as an air force officer, he has to defend China’s maritime interests in international fora.

Preliminaries aside, senior colonel Zhou’s argument, calling for a “competitive coexistence” between China and the United States is perfectly reasonable, but old hat.

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Yes, there is a risk of outright conflict, given recent encounters that have seen U.S. and Chinese aircraft and naval vessels come into close proximity. But as Thomas Schelling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote in the classic Strategy of Conflict, there is a possibility that both sides can find “focal points” — a clear solution that stands out as the natural answer when they do not have a chance to coordinate their responses. Not told where and when to meet in New York City, the common solution for two people would be to meet under the clock at Grand Central Terminal at noon.

Even the Americans have wizened up to the fact that both China and America need to find resting points even as they challenge each other across different domains. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis summed it up succinctly: the U.S. will cooperate with China “wherever possible,” and “compete vigorously where we must.” Mattis added that Washington would pursue a “constructive, results-oriented relationship” with China.

The argument for competitive coexistence is also a red herring. Yes, it is true that the U.S. is not an impartial player in the disputed South China Sea. It cannot say that it has no stake in the territorial disputes there, yet up the tempo of its maritime operations after identifying China as the primary source of tensions.

But senior colonel Zhou fails to get to the root of the problem: the U.S. is upping its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region, because a failure to do so would undermine the regional order based on international law. Discontinuing FONOPs would set an awful precedent: that China’s use of force and coercion to pummel smaller countries into submission is acceptable.

No wonder, regional countries silently cheer when the U.S. rides shotgun on FONOPs in defiance of China. They have heard enough of Beijing’s blandishments about its peaceful rise and a region of shared prosperity.

Actions speak louder than words. In 2012, China leaned on Cambodia — then the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — to prevent the issuance of a communique that broached the topic of the South China Sea. In 2014, China deployed a deep-sea oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast, sparking a standoff. More recently, China sent fishing fleets and coastguard vessels into Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, triggering a stern response from Jakarta.

Quite fair-mindedly, Karim Raslan, a Malaysian analyst, argues that both China and the U.S. are regional bullies who terrorize their respective schoolyards — Southeast Asia in China’s case, and Latin America, and the Middle East in Trump’s.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s bullying of America’s allies and international organizations is well documented. But American bullying has a longer historical provenance. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1999, Garry Wills said that the “bully of the free world” used “covert action, sabotage and threats” to depose leaders in countries like Iran, Guatemala and South Vietnam, not in name of imperialism, but “leadership.”

China’s bullying is relatively new, but more worrying, because how China treats smaller Asia-Pacific states today is a harbinger of how it will treat the region in the future.

At this, smaller Asian countries, particularly countries in Southeast Asia, are between a rock and hard place. They fret about America’s attention deficit disorder and possible disengagement from the region, and at the same time fret over growing Chinese assertiveness.

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To get a sense of the Asian angst over China, take some of the meta-narratives that have emerged in the past decade. The year 2010 was the year of the Chinese land grab, as China built on islets in the South China Sea, against the protests of many countries in the region.

In 2016, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter rallied regional countries to form a “principled security network” of bilateral and multilateral relationships that would support core values such as autonomy, freedom of navigation of overflight, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.

By 2019, Chinese expansionism and American calls to support a rules-based order had effectively cancelled each other out. In ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, which laid down the 10-member grouping’s vision for the region, the group called for China to play a bigger role in the region, particularly in maritime security. This was a side-swipe at the U.S. vision of the Indo-Pacific, which is essentially a subtle way of countering China.

As Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has argued, smaller countries do not want to choose between China and America. After all, the outcome of two elephants fighting (or making love) is the same — the underlying grass gets trampled.

Ultimately, the critical question facing the region is not so much competitive coexistence. Eventually, both Washington and China will find a modus operandi that works. The key question is whether China’s treatment of smaller Asia-Pacific nations today will actually be a foreshadow of how it treats the region in the future. To borrow the words of Mao Zedong, small countries in Asia have stood up. They have also smelled the gunpowder and, for now, decided to duck for cover.

The writer is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. He worked at the IISS between 2013 and 2020.