Leadership with Chinese Characteristics

A common theme in the international media and academic papers emphasizes China’s rise vs. America’s decline and presents China as the coming superpower. However, the question is how China can lead the globe if it is not trusted in its own turf.

So far, Beijing has failed to lead in Asia, making it unlikely that it will be able to do so internationally without major changes in policy. China’s closest neighbors have asked its main challenger, the United States, to maintain its military presence in the region to balance that of the rising Middle Kingdom. They regard China as incapable of adjusting to internationally accepted norms, setting multilaterally respectable standards, improving its relationship with the west, and compromising on border issues, the environment, regional cooperation and principally hegemony over the South China Sea, which China regards as its lake.

Weak in Soft Power, Strong in Hard Power

China’s relationships with its immediate neighbors -- Japan, India, Russia, South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines – while stable with some, have not improved in recent years and have deteriorated with others. The neighbors also notice that China’s closest allies are almost without exception blacklisted by the United States and its western partners – Somalia, North Korea, Burma and Iran, plus military alliances with Sudan and Nigeria.

China’s rising military expenditure and the People’s Liberation Army’s sea-and airborne intrusions into neighboring territories, arrests of fishermen, the never-ending expansion of ‘historical’ core interests, are causing neighboring governments to protest.

Even Australia, a country currently enjoying a monthly influx of A$8 billion from Chinese iron ore and coal imports, has expanded its military program, designed to protect it from China’s rise. Canberra is also intensifying its support for the US military in the region, which says a lot about China’s regional perception: business – yes, but that is all. To counterbalance China’s might in Asia a year ago, the US and Russia were invited to participate in the East Asian Summit.

With this in mind it is worth noting what Robert Kaplan, a US-based authority on the nature of American power, mentioned in a speech: the biggest untold story in the international media is the rising military expenditures in the Asian region. Only recently Singapore and the US called on China and other claimants to specify the extent of their pretensions in the South China Sea.

Many think-tankers and politicians claim there has been a breakthrough with Taiwan, China’s major testing ground. Where else would it be easier if not with an ‘ancestral’, ‘undeniable’ part of China? The neighbors are watching and, unlike many Washington-based observers, see that there is little rapprochement across the Taiwan Strait. Instead of mutual cooperation and consensual understanding, one of US foreign policy’s major achievements risks being given away to an autocratic regime.

Add the continuing military build-up directed to a huge extent at intimidating Taiwan and constraining pro-DPP sympathies. The militarization in the Strait can be seen not only as preparation for Asia-wide military dominance. In terms of Taiwan, Beijing knows there is no way it will win Taiwanese hearts and minds. It is left with coercing Taiwan into obedience, luring the KMT and DPP leaders into businesses and exerting constant pressure on the White House and Congress. In terms of Taiwan, Zhongnanhai currently has two supporters – the Ma Ying-jeou and Obama administrations. Whereas the former one’s attitude is no surprise, the latter one is, and is exemplified by Washington’s decision earlier in August to deny Taiwan the right to purchase a new generation of 55 F-16 jet righters.

If or when the US backs off and the annexation of the island is accomplished, there will be time to continue with the South China Sea and maybe Okinawa-related claims.

One of the major contending issues – territorial disputes, seem to cause more and more friction and angst – proportionally to the growing military clout of China -- not only in Asia, but also with the United States. The recent breakthrough – a diplomatic bargain achieved more than a month ago between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, turned out to be non-binding guidelines for joint activities in the South China Sea. The document fails to address the root of recurring tensions.

Unlike European 20th century foes, Southeast Asian countries are far from working out their old grievances. However, for their economies to grow, they need stability, which for decades has been provided by US military forces, and for which currently there is no replacement.

Against this background we can quantify the accomplishments of Chinese diplomacy. In 2009 the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report titled “Strategic Views on Asian Regionalism: Survey Results and Analysis”. One of the charts presents ‘Greatest threat to peace and stability in 10 years.’ In every country other than China, China was listed by Asian elites as the most likely threat to peace and security (38 percent), with North Korea the second-greatest (21 percent), and the US the third (13 percent). Since then the PLA has grown considerably. In terms of which nation that respondents thought would be the greatest force for peace, a weighted average was the US (40 percent), China (24 percent) and Japan (15 percent).

We can also quantify how much Chinese citizens, vs. Taiwan, for example value their commitments to their closest allies. After the March tsunami and earthquake disaster in Japan, 23 million Taiwanese donated more than US$200 million, with the presidential couple joining a TV fundraiser that raised almost US$25 million alone. By contrast, during the July floods in Pakistan a year earlier 1,3 billion Chinese offered less than US$50 million although more has been pledged.

One needs to consider growing controversies related to the PRC propaganda of the Confucius Institutes on western college campuses, which function more as propaganda arms and do not allow discussion of China’s weaknesses. As well, bids have failed by Chinese multinationals to acquire foreign assets, in countries suspicious of Bejjing. It then seems the approach to win not only Asian but also global hearts and minds, is not functioning well.

Why does China not attract trust? There is a constant din of righteous indignation. “If you invite the Dalai Lama, you offended the feelings of over a billion people and I won’t visit you during my EU tour; if you sell weapons to Taiwan, I will unleash my financial weapons and cancel military exchanges; if your journalistic or scholarly work touches upon certain issues – no visa, If you invite or let transfer Taiwanese high-level officials – I will …,’ the list goes on.

Then there is the Dalai Lama effect (meetings between a political leader and the Dalai Lama decrease exports to China by 8.1 percent or 16.9 percent on average, as established by Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann).

The once-widely-promoted peaceful rise policy has failed and seems to have been replaced by the concept of asymmetric warfare. To add insult to injury, the US is currently very limited in its possibilities to engage in Asia. It appears forced to scale down its military naval presence and back away from Taiwan.

It looks mostly like Chinese money is welcome. Its leaders fail to grasp the fact that the way they intimidate Chinese society won’t necessarily work abroad, especially where democracy and law have become the norm. As at home, so abroad, They have to rely more on muscle than on charm.

(Richard Zalski lives in Taipei and is a doctoral candidate at the Polish Academy of Sciences.)