At the Davos conference in January, Chinese leader Xi Jinping denounced protectionism and postured as a champion of a rules-based international order. It was a clever PR gambit to exploit international unease over the possibility that a Trumpified America could embrace tariffs and abandon its advocacy for free trade and the rule of law. But, as the current brouhaha over South Korea’s deployment of a U.S. THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile-defense system demonstrates, there is a vast disparity between what Chinese leaders say and how they act.
Beijing insists on seeing THAAD as a threat to China even though it is designed to deal with the menace of an increasingly well-armed and belligerent North Korea, which is busy expanding its arsenal of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them. The threat might be blunted if China were to apply serious pressure on North Korea, given that Beijing is the only friend that Pyongyang has. But that’s not what China is doing. Instead of pressuring North Korea, it is pressuring South Korea—e.g. the wrong Korea.
China’s leadership argues that the THAAD system in South Korea could erode its nuclear deterrent. The case for this is, to put it mildly, shaky; THAAD is too short-range a system to shoot down Chinese ICBMs. Chinese concerns rest more on THAAD’s powerful radar, which, they fear, could be used to track China’s missiles. Independent experts suggest that, as the New York Times noted, China is exaggerating the capabilities of THAAD’s radar and underestimating the extent to which the U.S. and its allies can already monitor Chinese missile launches with radars based in Japan and other neighboring countries.
But rational or not, China’s leadership is irate, and they have orchestrated a crude campaign designed to hurt the South Korean economy—and in particular the giant Korean conglomerate Lotte, which has lent some of its land for the installation of the first THAAD batteries. The Chinese leadership has orchestrated the kind of ugly, supposedly spontaneous nationalist outpouring of anti-Korean hatred that was previously directed at Japan.
Chinese tourists are boycotting South Korea, and Chinese authorities are finding excuses to close Lotte stores in China. Chinese individuals are taking matters further, filming themselves destroying products in Lotte supermarkets or smashing Samsung and LG electronics. The BBC notes that “a large group of students were filmed at the Shijixing Primary School” chanting slogans reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution: “Boycott South Korea! Drive Lotte out of China! This all starts from us! Resist Thaad! Love your country!”
It is extremely doubtful that one Chinese in a thousand could possibly explain why THAAD is a threat to their country. But then this isn’t about reason or logic. This is about the Communist Party turning a switching to mobilize China’s public opinion and economic power against a smaller country that refuses to do exactly what Beijing says—in this case, against a country that has the temerity to try to defend itself from a menacing neighbor.
If anyone needs a reminder as to why China cannot replace the U.S. as the champion of a rules-based international order, this is it. At the risk of stating the obvious, China is not a rule of law country. It is dominated by a Communist oligarchy that squashes dissent at home and bullies its neighbors in Asia. China is happy to take advantage of free trade when it suits its purposes—and there is nothing wrong with that, since we benefit from trading with China, too. But China is always willing to flout international norms if that is seen as the way to achieve its objectives. That is what is currently doing, for example, not only by bullying South Korea but by ignoring an international court ruling that it has no right to assert sovereignty over the South China Sea.
Thus, China is not a viable replacement for the international role that the U.S. has performed since 1945. No one is. If we don’t support free trade and liberal institutions, no one else will step in to fill the vacuum and the world will become more dangerous, chaotic, and lawless, with strong powers like China trying to push around their smaller neighbors.