China's Assertive Behavior Makes Neighbors Wary

Nov 2, 2012
Originally published on November 2, 2012 10:20 pm

As China's global stature grows, Beijing appears to be flexing its muscles more frequently on the international stage. As part of NPR's series on China this week, correspondents Louisa Lim and Frank Langfitt are looking at this evolving foreign policy. From Beijing, Louisa examines the forces driving China's policy, while Frank reports on why China's neighbors are feeling increasingly edgy.

By Louisa Lim

In the past two months, China has brought its first aircraft carrier into the navy, escalated territorial disputes over rocky uninhabited islets far from its shores and permitted tens of thousands of citizens to hold anti-Japanese protests in 180 Chinese cities.

Such assertive behavior seems to signal Beijing's departure from the long-held foreign policy maxim attributed to former leader Deng Xiaoping: "Bide your time and hide your intentions."

"Some people argue that given growing territorial disputes and mounting strategic pressure from the U.S., then China had better change the posture and get some sort of new foreign policy approach," says Zhu Feng at Peking University's Center for International and Strategic Studies.

Zhu himself is still an advocate of Deng's low-profile approach. But he admits that, given China's increasing international involvement in missions such as anti-piracy patrols off Somalia, this is becoming challenging.

"China now is the 800-pound gorilla. When it walks through the forest, it's totally impossible not to make a big noise," he says.

A Coherent Policy?

Others argue that China is suffering from a lack of coherent foreign policy.

"The basic reason for this foreign policy vacuum is that China is rising very quickly," says Wang Zheng, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "It's not really ready for playing a role as a global power. That's totally different from being a regional power. You must have a strong foreign policy, and Beijing needs more time to prepare itself."

The upcoming leadership transition in China has also contributed to foreign policy stasis, with political horse trading and domestic issues preoccupying the country's leaders.

Foreign policy traditionally ranks low in the power structure, with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi not even ranked as a member of the 24-strong Politburo. This has implications for policy coordination, allowing local bureaucratic interests to shape the foreign policy agenda on occasion.

"To us it looks like China is a unified actor," says Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration, and now at the University of California, San Diego.

But she decries the idea that China is "an authoritarian country, a few guys on top calling the shots, they have this grand strategy of taking over the world, competing with the U.S. to be a global superpower. I really don't think this is the case."

Tensions Over Islands

Over the summer, tensions escalated in the South China Sea, where China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia all have overlapping territorial claims.

Shirk argues that in such disputes, China's position has been determined not by central decision-making but by "puny bureaucratic actors" able to push their own agenda because of a lack of internal coordination.

Speaking of tensions in the South China Sea over a small group of islets known as the Scarborough Shoal by the Philippines and Huangyan Island by China, she says, "This was manufactured, stirred up by agencies like the fishing agency, the marine surveillance people, who wanted to use nationalism to get more power and influence for themselves. China's leaders are not managing their collective leadership particularly well, so they're not able to exercise effective restraint over these bureaucratic interests."

Whether it's anti-Japanese crowds in the street or the unveiling of a new aircraft carrier, China's external shows of force may look like a sign of strength. But they mask a lack of internal coordination, combined with tensions about the direction of its foreign policy. China's long-term use of nationalism is also hemming its leaders in.

"Any international dispute — even a minor confrontation — can become a test of government, because the government's basic legitimacy is based on being a guardian of Chinese national face," says Wang Zheng, the author of Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. "So backing down can be seen as weakness or even a new humiliation."

The View From Outside China

By Frank Langfitt

In the eyes of China's neighbors, the recent run-ins over disputed islands point to a more aggressive, rising power willing to flex its muscles and impose costs on those who defy it.

Japanese companies have certainly paid a price for the decision by the Japanese government to buy several disputed islands in the East China Sea in September.

Chinese rioters reacted to the purchase by overturning Japanese cars and even beating a fellow Chinese citizen senseless for driving one.

They also boycotted Japanese products, causing big losses for Japan's famed auto companies, which rely on the China market. This week, Honda reduced its full-year, net profit forecast by 20 percent because of a drop in China sales.

The backlash also hit Japan directly as more than 4,000 Chinese canceled vacations to Japan's southern island of Okinawa following warnings from the government in Beijing.

"The Chinese government said it is not very safe to go to Japan now," recalled Sen Tamaki, who heads overseas marketing for the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

He says that warning was totally false, but it took a toll. Tamaki is also worried about long-term damage to Okinawa's economy if relations remain rocky.

"If you want to talk about the future, it's going to be a serious problem," said Tamaki during a chat in Naha, the capital of Okinawa prefecture.

Currently, Okinawa's tourist-dependent economy relies on domestic visitors from other parts of Japan.

"But in Japan, the population is decreasing," says Tamaki, "so the tourism market kind of shrinks in the future. So, China is probably one of the biggest markets to Japan."

Dispute With Philippines

China is also a big market for products from other neighbors, including bananas from the Philippines. When the countries faced off last spring over another set of islands in the South China Sea, China imposed stringent health restrictions on Philippine bananas.

Stephen Antig, who heads the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association, says exports to China plummeted.

"We used to export about 800,000 boxes of bananas to China" per week, says Antig. "Now, we're lucky if we can export 100,000 to 200,000 boxes per week."

Antig says many small growers are now running out of money, while big farmers are traveling to Europe and beyond to find new buyers.

"The lesson is: You should continue to identify new markets, because you never know what can happen," Antig says.

As the biggest economy in Asia, China has lots of leverage with its neighbors, but using purchasing power as a club has limits.

Boycotting Japanese cars in China also hurts the Chinese workers who build them. For instance, Honda has cut daily shifts at its two biggest Chinese plants from two to one until at least mid-November.

"That economic weapon is not actually such a smart tool of power as they would like it to be," says Euan Graham, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "Particularly if we start seeing the economic fallout as China's own economy starts to slow down from slowing investment from Japan and other outside countries."

Huang Jing, who teaches political science at the National University of Singapore, says China's growing assertiveness in the waters off its shores has a sense of inevitability.

"People have to face reality," said Huang in an interview in his office in Singapore. "They know the Chinese are coming. On the other hand, they worry about it."

Huang says as China's economy and military continue to grow, China will demand a bigger say in the region. The U.S. recently pledged to beef up its military profile in Asia, where it has huge economic interests. China sees this as an attempt to contain its rise.

Countries across the region are now hedging their bets and hoping they won't be forced to choose sides.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. The Chinese Communist Party will soon choose new leaders, a once-in-a-decade transition. And all week, we've been examining the challenges they'll face. Our final story, in two parts, begins with NPR's Louisa Lim on Chinese foreign policy and how it affects China's neighbors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A war cry echoes across China's cities, shouts for war with Japan. This was the scene following Japan's decision to buy disputed islands in the East China Sea. Strategic interests are at stake. But the crowds are motivated by something else. One chant says it all: never forget national humiliation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

ZHU ZEYAO: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Japan has bullied us too much, says student protester Zhu Zeyao, alluding to what China calls its century of humiliation. For Chinese people, he says, it's all about historical respect.

DR. WANG ZHENG: The Chinese historical memory of national humiliation is really key to understanding China's foreign policy.

LIM: That's Wang Zheng from Seton Hall University. He's just written a book about China's use of national humiliation, which he says was stepped up after the killing of unarmed protesters in 1989.

ZHENG: They were facing a crisis that the socialism or communism is no longer a ideology for Chinese people, and nationalism somehow became the easiest tool to use.

WEN JIABAO: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Speaking recently, Premier Wen Jiabao said China's past should make its people cherish national pride more. He reminded future diplomats that before Communist rule, China was a weak country with no foreign policy. But even today, some argue there's a lack of coherent foreign policy guiding China's rise.

SUSAN SHIRK: To us, it looks like China is a unified actor, and they've got his grand strategy of taking over the world or competing with the United States to be a global superpower. I really don't think that's the case.

LIM: That's Susan Shirk from the University of California, San Diego. She believes that in the absence of any grand strategy, foreign policy is being hijacked by bureaucratic interests. She gives the example of a recent territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

SHIRK: This was manufactured, stirred up by agencies like the fishing agency, marine surveillance, people who wanted to use nationalism to get more power and influence for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: For young nationalists, news of Chinese boats being stopped by foreigners sparks outrage regardless of who the foreigners are. Beijing's victim complex hems its leaders in, even if they might want to build better ties with their neighbors. Here's Wang Zheng again.

ZHENG: The government's basic legitimacy is based on as a guardian of the Chinese national face. Backing down can be seen as a weakness or even a new humiliation.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Whether it be crowds in the street or unveiling a new aircraft carrier, China's external shows of force look like a sign of strength. But they mark a foreign policy vacuum, which is currently being filled by raw nationalism, making a rising Beijing a volatile player on the international stage. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm Frank Langfitt, and I'm walking along the beach on the Japanese island of Okinawa. You know, the impact of Chinese foreign policy extends far beyond the streets of Beijing. You can feel it here, hundreds of miles away. After the demonstrations, more than 4,000 Chinese tourists canceled their plans to visit here.

SEN TAMAKI: The Chinese government said it is not very safe to go to Japan now.

LANGFITT: Sen Tamaki works for the Okinawa Convention and Visitors Bureau. He says that warning was totally false. But it took a toll. And he's worried about long-term damage to Okinawa's economy if relations remain rocky.

TAMAKI: If you want to talk about the future, it's going to be a serious problem. Now, we depend on domestic market. But in Japan, the population is decreasing now. So the tourism market kind of shrinks in the future. So China is probably one of the biggest markets to Japan.

LANGFITT: China is also a big market for products from other neighbors, including bananas from the Philippines. So when those two countries got into a standoff last spring over another set of islands in the South China Sea, China imposed stringent health restrictions on Philippine bananas. Stephen Antig heads the Philippine Banana Growers and Exporters Association. He compares weekly exports before and after the conflict.

STEPHEN ANTIG: We used to export about 800,000 boxes of bananas to China. Now, we're lucky if we can export one to 200,000 boxes per week.

LANGFITT: Antig says now many small growers are running out of money. And big farmers are traveling to Europe and beyond to find new buyers.

ANTIG: The lesson is you should continue to identify new markets because you never know what can happen.

LANGFITT: As the biggest economy in Asia, China has lots of leverage with its neighbors. But using purchasing power as a club has limits. For instance, boycotting Japanese cars in China also hurts the Chinese workers who build them. Euan Graham is a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

DR. EUAN GRAHAM: That economic weapon is not actually such a smart tool of power as they would like it to be and particularly if we start seeing the economic fallout as China's own economy starts to slow down from slowing investment from Japan and other outside countries.

LANGFITT: While some analysts see a lack of coordination behind China's new assertiveness offshore, others see a broader strategy and inevitability.

DR. HUANG JING: People have to face reality. They know the Chinese are coming. On the other hand, they worry about it.

LANGFITT: Huang Jing teaches political science at the National University of Singapore. He says as China's economy and military continue to grow, China will demand a bigger say in the region.

JING: This is their sphere of influence.

LANGFITT: And what do they want to use this sphere of influence for?

JING: First, for security. If your neighborhood is an influential of sphere for other power, for example, United States or Japan, you don't feel safe.

LANGFITT: In the last six months, China has had run-ins with both Japan and the Philippines. But Huang says ultimately, it's more concerned with the country that has dominated the region militarily for decades.

JING: When China look at those areas, they see America, America, America, everywhere.

LANGFITT: The U.S. has recently pledged to beef up its military profile in Asia, where it has huge economic interests. China sees this as an attempt to contain its rise. Countries across the region are hedging their bets and hoping they won't be forced to choose sides. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.