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Beijing’s Message to Asia: If You Can’t Join ’Em, Beat ‘Em

by Elizabeth C. Economy
November 22, 2011

World leaders pose for the family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii.

World leaders pose for the family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Honolulu, Hawaii. (Chris Wattie / Courtesy of Reuters)

Now that President Obama has completed his victory lap in Asia and is safely ensconced—or is that mired?—in Washington’s political mess, the Chinese are busy recalibrating their message to the region. After watching the United States once again be voted most popular, the message from China seems to be twofold:

First, the United States is not one of us. As Tsinghua University scholar Tao Wenzhao writes in the China Daily, “East Asian countries have to face another thorny issue: How to deal with the United States in their push for regional integration. Despite being a non-Asian country and despite lying on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. has been on high vigilance against East Asian integration that in its eyes could lead to its exclusion from the region’s affairs.” Or, as Premier Wen Jiabao noted at the East Asia Summit, “East Asian countries are capable of solving the [South China Sea] dispute by themselves.”

Second, we have more money, so you should be friends with us instead (or, by the way, you’ll be sorry).

The Global Times manages to evoke insecurity and arrogance all at once. In a series of opinion pieces, the newspaper both boasts of China’s strength and threatens those who don’t see things China’s way.

  • “The momentum of U.S. returning to Asia seems fierce…A question must be answered: What should China do? …observe calmly and secure our position. China should decode the nature of the U.S. encirclement and the strategic threats it will bring…The U.S. does not have the strength to encircle China now…Facing a weak economic recovery, the U.S. can do nothing but make some strategic mobilization as self-consolation. China will not confront the U.S. strategically or militarily. At present, China has the upper hand in the Sino-U.S. competition and the U.S. return to Asia cannot change the situation. A growing China will possibly change the choice of some countries and China’s development will simplify many problems.”
  • “As long as China is patient, there will be no room for those who choose to depend economically on China while looking to the U.S. to guarantee their security.”
  • “Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached no matter what Australia does to undermine its security. There is a real worry in the Chinese society concerning Australia’s acceptance of an increased U.S. military presence. Such psychology will influence the long-term development of the Australia-China relationship.”

Neither of these arguments is likely to be compelling to regional actors. Both miss the point that you don’t win friends by bad-mouthing others or paying for their friendship. The real argument Beijing should make is one espoused by Tsinghua professor Yan Xuetong in his recent New York Times opinion piece: the “battle for people’s hearts and minds” between the United States and China will be “won by the country that displays more humane authority.” Unfortunately, in trying to define how to get to a more humane authority, Yan falls short, doing little more than suggesting Beijing should choose more virtuous and wise leaders, as well as open its doors to leaders from abroad. Good luck with that. Instead, he should listen to his neighbor at Peking University Zhu Feng, who calls it straight when he says that in order for China to lead, it needs to respect the rule of law and human rights as well as promote economic growth. Until all of those are Beijing’s top political priorities, Chinese leaders will never be voted most popular—they’ll just keep paying people to hang around with them for a while.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by shingabis

    LOL, yes China deserves some hard snark. Like John McLaughlin’s “hardest talk”. They’re so good at deadpan dishonest diplomacy that some guidance is needed for the uninitiated and gullible, or just needy, at least till the “sound of cannons” is heard. Probably will be, the way they think.

  • Posted by William

    Aside from the usual rhetorics, the Global Times does have a point. How does US going to fund all this? The super committee has just failed to reach compromise on the deficit deal and the defense budget is subject to 500B cut in the next decade. I guess China would not be too nervous if the US decides to cut its entitlement, education and social programs to fund this grand game in the Pacific. Good luck Barry.

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    …The U.S. does not have the strength to encircle China now…Facing a weak economic recovery, the U.S. can do nothing but make some strategic mobilization as self-consolation.


  • Posted by Bob Walker


  • Posted by RousseauC

    To Bob Walker:

    You seem to like the Cold War. The wisdom for international relations today is to avoid disaster like the WWI and WWII. But you just to lead China and the US in that direction. Why so many people are fond of confrontation.

    The US this time is just trying to take advantage of China’s temporary difficult situation, it is not good. Just remember, there is time when you are in difficult situation, what you expect China to do.

    If you know China, throughout its history, the policy has always to pursue friendly neighbors….

  • Posted by Gary J. Goldstein

    I haven’t had a chance to read Zhu Feng’s article. I’ll read it in a few minutes. I posted a comment about Yan Xuetong’s on my Facebook and I wanted to share it with you but first to tell you that I admire your work.

    This is an interesting article [NYT artice by Yan]. I hope China will follow the author’s recommendations for social justice in China. I was most concerned about one thing Yan said: “Both governments must understand that political leadership, rather than throwing money at problems, will determine who wins the race for global supremacy.” I didn’t realize “we” were in a race for global supremacy. But it’s valuable that U.S. leaders and academics, like those at the CSIS | Center for Strategic & International Studies [as well as CFR], hear clearly and directly, that at least some important academics in China believe we are in a race for global supremacy.

  • Posted by Wong Tze Kwang

    How long can the US play the military game?The sun never set on the British empire.What happened?The same thing can happen to the US. Yes I know the US economy is vastly superior to the British but empires come and go.
    If the US aint careful,the American will be saddled with an orange,sorry,a banana republic.

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