Ominous Trend

Joshua Kurlantzick · China's Foreign Policy

Over the past two weeks, a dispute between Japan and China over a series of islands claimed by both countries has spiralled into a major diplomatic incident. In response to the Japanese coastguard’s seizure of a Chinese fishing boat following a collision near the islands, Beijing has cut off high-level diplomatic talks with Japan. In both countries, nationalist protestors have taken to the streets.

The dispute is part of an ominous trend. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, China enjoyed a honeymoon of sorts with its Asian neighbours, as it emerged from the defensive crouch of its post-Mao foreign policy and began to use soft power – aid, trade deals, working with regional organisations – to deflate concerns about its rise and turn itself into, potentially, the pre-eminent regional power. The honeymoon appears to be over. In the wake of the global economic crisis, with US influence apparently fading, China has pursued a more confrontational and aggressive foreign policy. It has claimed the South China Sea as its core national interest, although parts of it are claimed by at least four other countries; it has ramped up a border dispute with India; it has largely refused to listen to Southeast Asian nations’ complaints that its dams on the upper portions of the Mekong River are destroying the livelihoods of people downstream; and it has made repeated incursions into (according to Tokyo) Japan’s territorial waters.

But the new posture could backfire. Worried about China’s aggressiveness, Southeast Asian nations this summer asked the US to take a tougher stand on the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton duly announced that the US believes an amicable resolution of claims to the sea to be in America’s core interest. Japan and the US have also boosted funding for initiatives in the Mekong River area, while the Obama administration has quietly built a close strategic relationship with both Indonesia and Vietnam. Washington has embarked on a controversial agreement to provide nuclear technology to Hanoi and may soon be conducting joint naval exercises with Vietnam. When Vietnamese officials visit Washington, China is always top of the agenda. India, which just a few years ago was talking of a new relationship with China and the emerging giants’ shared interests on climate change and trade, has fortified its border with China and pushed harder to improve relations with the US and Japan. Yet China, at least for the moment, seems unfazed.


  • 23 September 2010 at 6:29am
    tilaksen says:
    China is being foolish because its belligerence will unite the regions countries against it. But it is mostly intimidation to gauge how far it can push without actually engaging in combat. Its committed friends in the region, Myanmar, Pakistan and the DRK are hardly an assembly of the virtuous to inspire confidence in China's record of goodwill towards democracies.

  • 29 September 2010 at 7:47am
    Tom Rafferty says:
    Sceptical of this analysis, which has become widespread in the last year. It seems to be as much about US assertiveness - sometimes egged on by smaller states looking to increase their leverage - as much as China's. The Obama administration has said the US is "back" in East Asia and, as it might be beginning to extract itself from its strategic mess in the Middle East, it seems increasingly willing to back up that statement with hard as well as soft power. As for China, barring the comments of a few firebrands, I haven't seen anything substantive to suggest they are pursuing a more "aggressive" foreign policy, with mainstream elite opinion almost universally urging continued subservience to the reality of US power. The idea that the South China Seas, for example, are now considered a "core national interest" is based on diplomatic hearsay and certainly hasn't become part of official discourse (unlike Tibet and Taiwan). At least that's what Wang Jisi says (and he should know - in Chinese):

    Missing in any analysis of the "threat" posed by China to future peace in East Asia is the equally worrying attachment of the US to continued regional hegemony.