- China is economically and politically poised to be Asia’s leading soft power, but its aggressive stance in the South China Sea has pushed neighbours towards the US
- Beijing can still win its diplomacy contest with Washington, but it will need to regain trust in the region
With the advantages of geographic permanency and burgeoning economic and political clout, China has a soft power edge in Asia. Its rival – the US – is hobbled by the tyranny of distance, its preoccupation elsewhere, its blatant self-interest and its overly militarist approach to international relations.
But China has played its diplomatic hand poorly. It got arrogant and impatient, and overreached, playing right into the US campaign to isolate and demonise it. Now it is reaping the whirlwind of its foreign policies and actions in Asia.
Indeed, driven by the push of Sinophobia and the pull of US offers to protect them, countries from Australia to Japan and from India to Indonesia are rapidly coalescing into an anti-China security camp.
Japan has crossed the defence policy Rubicon vis-à-vis China. It has declared China “the greatest” strategic challenge. According to Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa “its foreign policy to recreate international order to serve its self-interest is a grave concern”.
To respond to this “threat”, Japan will nearly double its defence budget over the next five years. More worrying for Beijing, Japan’s Self-Defence Forces are being integrated into the US “defence” strategy intended to deter China. In particular, the US will now supply Japan with long-range missiles that can hit ships at sea and even targets inside China.
Some of these missiles will be placed with more mobile US Marine littoral regiments in Japan’s southern islands, extending their reach. These regiments will also carry out joint exercises and surveillance in the disputed East China Sea and near Taiwan.
Most alarming to China and perhaps to Japan’s other victims in WWII, it is apparently modifying its policy to allow pre-emptive “defensive” strikes against an enemy. This raises the spectre of a Japanese military that can and will attack if it deems it necessary.
This and Japan’s biggest military build-up since World War II raise memories of its past horrific behaviour and, if nothing else, are likely to spur an arms race in East Asia. Indeed, Japan’s neighbours are unlikely to simply trust its goodwill.
The same dynamic holds true for the US and Australia. Australian defence policy has become linked – some say subservient – to that of the US. Under Aukus, it has agreed to adopt US cyber warfare and drone technology and to allow the US to supply nuclear-powered submarines that will be used as part of the American strategy to contain China, especially in the South China Sea.
Also, Australia will host more US troops, bombers and jet fighters in its extreme north and continue its considerable assistance in collecting military intelligence on China.
Japan and Australia are US allies and might have been expected to go down this path that hitches their fate to US defence policy. But now, non-aligned India and Indonesia – two of the most populous and politically important states in Asia – are stepping onto this slippery slope. Both have increased military cooperation with the US.
China has overreached in the South China Sea. It is one thing to make an extreme claim, support that claim diplomatically and even reject an international court decision. Other major powers – like the US, UK, Russia and France – have done so. But they paid a reputational cost and eventually complied.
It is quite another thing to continue to enforce such a claim in the face of regional opposition, especially if one is trying to court the region. Indeed, China’s harassment of petroleum exploration efforts in the legal exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam has been over the top.
This is particularly true in the context of incursions by China’s fishing and coastguard vessels in Indonesia’s EEZ and its threats to Philippine civilian boats fishing near or resupplying troops on features on its continental shelf.
Add to this China’s provocations in and over Malaysian-claimed waters and its new law authorising its coastguard to use force to defend its sovereignty in disputed areas, and a pattern emerges that worries its rival claimants.
Indeed, Beijing’s aggressive actions have undermined trust. Under US leadership and constant prodding, a loose coalition of democracies is forming against what they consider China’s unacceptable behaviour – especially in the South China Sea. The G7 and Nato have condemned its behaviour.
The Quad – an informal anti-China strategic grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia – is gaining momentum, and the coordination of Western military signalling in the South China Sea has increased significantly. The near coincidence of US and Chinese aircraft carrier strike groups exercising in the South China Sea is part of the new normal in the region.
China has belatedly recognised the danger. As one of its “Wolf Warriors”, China’s Ambassador to France Lu Shaye said, “the public opinion war is a strength of the West but a weakness for us”. President Xi Jinping told the Politburo in 2021 that China needs “to tell its story better” and “be more lovable”.
When in a diplomatic hole, the best advice is to stop digging. With new foreign minister Qin Gang taking the reins, China has an opportunity to revamp its relations with Asian neighbours and the region. It has the tools to rebound diplomatically. Its geographic presence in the region, the seeming inevitability of its regional dominance, and its economic engine and largesse give it formidable advantages.
But if it wants to win the long-term soft power struggle for Asia it needs to lighten up, avoid diplomatic mistakes, be more patient and conciliatory, and play its powerful hand better.
Mark J. Valencia is a non-resident senior research fellow at the Huayang Institute for Maritime Cooperation and Ocean Governance