Most of the attention paid to China these days focuses on Beijing’s efforts to change things on the home front. Targeted arrests of officials on grounds of corruption, a crackdown on prominent Internet and human rights activists, and the establishment of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone are just some of the many policy (re)innovations that Xi Jinping and his team are advancing. Yet pieces are also in play on the foreign policy front, suggesting that China may be entering a new phase in its regional diplomacy.
Over the past decade, China’s foreign policy toward Southeast Asia has evolved from the positive refrain of “peaceful rise,” “win-win cooperation,” “rising tide lifts all boats” of the mid-2000s to the more bullying “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact” mantra that emerged by the end of the new century’s first decade. Now, newly selected President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang appear to be trying to marry the two, selling China as a positive economic force within the region, while continuing to play hardball on the security front.
In his appearance before the ASEAN nations in early September at the China-ASEAN Expo and China-ASEAN Business Investment Summit in Nanning, Premier Li Keqiang sounded like his predecessor Wen Jiabao in the early days, claiming that China’s policy toward ASEAN was win-win. Calling for the next decade to be a “diamond decade” between China and ASEAN, Li proposed to ratchet up economic integration by upgrading the China-ASEAN free trade area in order to achieve a record bilateral trade volume of one trillion dollars; pushing Chinese infrastructure investment throughout Southeast Asia to promote connectivity in roads, railways, water transport, telecommunications, and energy; and developing a China-ASEAN maritime partnership, among other initiatives.
At the same time, “win-win” under Li and Xi does not appear to apply equally to everyone. Noticeably absent from the September gathering was the Philippines. In the immediate run-up to the meetings, China disinvited President Benigno Aquino even though the Philippines was designated as the country of honor for this year’s expo. China is punishing the Philippines for the latter’s decision to appeal to the United Nations for arbitration over the two countries’ dispute regarding the South China Sea. Such behavior is reminiscent of China’s 2011 ban on the export of rare earths to Japan in the wake of a dispute in the East China Sea.
Moreover, in a visit the previous month to four Southeast Asian countries, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed the failure of multilateral talks over the South China Sea on outside interference—namely the United States—an analysis with which few outside China would concur. He called for the Southeast Asian claimants to the South China Sea to have “realistic expectations” and take a “gradual approach” to the development of a code of conduct.
Within the region, however, such talk is not necessarily falling on receptive ears. While calling for patience, Beijing, itself, is continuing to push its own expansive security agenda at the expense of the rest of the region. At least one senior ASEAN member official, for example, pointed out privately in late September that Beijing is not only still promulgating its redrawn passport map of 2012 (which incorporates vast areas of disputed territory into the PRC) but also actively working to make it a reality. Without real actions to support its positive words, China’s diamond decade is unlikely to glitter very brightly.