For years we have been hearing about how effective Chinese diplomacy is — a supposed contrast with a ham-handed, distracted Uncle Sam who was letting the rising dragon take over East Asia while we weren’t paying attention. No one should underestimate the rising military challenge posed by China. As Robert Kaplan notes in this Washington Post op-ed:
China has the world’s second-largest naval service, after only the United States. Rather than purchase warships across the board, it is developing niche capacities in sub-surface warfare and missile technology designed to hit moving targets at sea. At some point, the U.S. Navy is likely to be denied unimpeded access to the waters off East Asia. China’s 66 submarines constitute roughly twice as many warships as the entire British Royal Navy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Chinese hegemony: its rise has alarmed pretty much all its neighbors, ranging from India and Australia to Japan and South Korea. The latest sign of how Chinese hectoring and bullying is souring other countries is the flap over a Chinese fishing trawler that collided with Japanese coast-guard vessels near a disputed island in the East China Sea that is claimed by both countries. The Japanese agreed to release the fishing captain on Friday after what the New York Times described as “a furious diplomatic assault from China,” which included the cut-off of “ministerial-level talks on issues like joint energy development, and curtailed visits to Japan by Chinese tourists.” In the short term, this is a victory for China. But for the long term, it leaves hard feelings behind and convinces many more Japanese — and other Asians — that China’s rise poses a threat to them.
Keep in mind that the Democrats, the current Japanese ruling party, came to power talking about weakening the U.S.-Japanese alliance and strengthening ties with China. If China were better behaved, that might have come to pass. But Chinese assertiveness is rubbing the Japanese the wrong way. The same is true with South Koreans, Australians, and other key Chinese trade partners. In those countries, too, hopes of a closer relationship with China have been frustrated; instead, they are drawing closer to the U.S.
The fundamental problem is that China’s ruling oligarchy has no Marxist legitimacy left; its only claim to power is to foster an aggressive Chinese nationalism. That may do wonders for support on the home front, but it is doomed to antagonize its neighbors and possibly bring into being a de facto coalition to contain Beijing. That, at least, should be the goal of American policy. Even as we continue to trade with China, we should make sure to curb its geo-political ambitions. That is a goal in which we should be able to get the cooperation of many of China’s neighbors — if we actually practice the sort of “smart power” diplomacy that the Obama-ites came into office promising.