PeaceVoice: China's rise hits a wall, opening doors for U.S.

Over the last decade or so, the tendency among China watchers has been to see China’s rise as an endless upward progression. The same thing happened during the Cold War when the Soviet Union actually had feet of clay, but was viewed as a global colossus.

China’s economic and diplomatic successes are significant, but have often been exaggerated while its weaknesses were ignored or underestimated. Only now, amid bad news for China’s economy, have observers awakened to certain realities.

The first reality is that China’s post-COVID economy is sputtering. It faces falling prices amidst stagnant domestic demand for goods, a collapsing real estate market, declining exports and imports, very high government debt.

For a regime relying on domestic strength as the foundation of its foreign policy success, this economic weakness has to be troubling.

Xi Jinping has made internal security the hallmark of his administration. If the economy isn’t delivering growth with equity, political trouble may lie ahead.

That may help explain efforts to reinforce Communist Party discipline in the military, double down on repression in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, and deal harshly with dissidence among lawyers and human-rights activists. In truth, there’s considerable unrest and uncertainty in the empire.

The second reality lies abroad.

China’s principal partners, Russia and North Korea, are liabilities as well as assets. Putin’s war on Ukraine undermines Chinese diplomacy in Europe and adds to China’s America problems, while North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats bring a dangerous instability to the Korean peninsula.

In Central Asia, China is competing with, and actually out-competing, Russia in relations with the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

In South and Southeast Asia, China inspires both fear and awe.

Most countries accept the need to accommodate China, which is their dominant trade partner. But while China has predominant political influence in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar (formerly Burma), other nations in the region, including India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand, are looking to the U.S. for balance. In fact, polling of citizens and elites in Southeast Asia points to more positive feeling toward the U.S. than China.

Before the Ukraine war, even the closest U.S. allies — Japan, South Korea and Australia — were willing to accommodate China: Japan, by refusing to commit to defending Taiwan in case of war and restraining its military capabilities; South Korea, by forging a close trade relationship and not fully embracing THAAD, a missile defense system aimed at both North Korea and China.

But now, all three have re-committed to tight security ties with the U.S. and each other.

Japan and South Korea concluded their first summit in 12 years in March. Both also joined in the recent Asian summit hosted by President Biden at Camp David, in which participants agreed to respond as one to regional threats — meaning, of course, from North Korea and China.

Korea and Japan are now imposing export controls on high-end computer chips coveted by China. Japan has also embarked on a military buildup aimed directly at China. And Australia and India have followed suit, becoming part of the Quad security dialogue and the AUKUS group.

China’s chief calling card is money, specifically, its Belt and Road Initiative loan program, which has distributed hundreds of billions of dollars, mainly among developing countries. Most Asia-Pacific countries have, in fact, joined BRI.

Some analysts think BRI has proven a very successful effort to meet developing countries’ needs without imposing onerous conditions, in contrast with loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. But others see BRI as a debt trap that creates dependence on China, leading to sacrifices of sovereignty such as control of ports.

Serious studies of BRI show it is neither all one nor all the other. But it’s clear that BRI has become a Chinese debt burden, and given China’s economic woes, chances are good Beijing will not be nearly as generous going forward..

Meanwhile, some Chinese actions are undermining BRI appeal.

For example, Southeast Asian neighbors rely on the Mekong River for fishing. But Chinese dams are taking a large bite out of their fishing industry, arousing anger.

Mongolia, long economically dependent on China, is now reaching out to the U.S. for trade, and has just struck a major deal with Google for computer assistance.

Competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have put China at odds with Vietnam and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Vietnam and the U.S. have agreed to form a strategic partnership, and President Biden is scheduled to visit Vietnam Sept. 9.

The Philippines, which had accommodated China under Rodrigo Duterte, has reverted under Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to a strategic partnership with the U.S. in response to Chinese pressure in the South China Sea. Most recently, a heavily armed Chinese coast guard vessel tried to block a Philippines supply boat from reaching a beached ship that marks its claimed territory in Mischief Reef.

The Philippines is opening four additional military bases to the U.S. and resuming joint naval patrols with the U.S. It has rejected a joint patrol invitation from China, which is continuing to claim a vast swath of the South China Sea.

If you look at the world through the eyes of Chinese leaders, you see obstacles on the home front that demand attention and resources — this at the very time a new Cold War looms over Asia, with the U.S. massing allies to contain a presumed Chinese threat.

What Xi Jinping has found, just as Chairman Mao did before him, is that domestic weaknesses constrain Chinese actions abroad.

Chinese leaders will always give priority to security at home over priorities abroad. Xi Jinping’s concept of “comprehensive security” makes that plain.

That perspective should inform the analysis of China hawks in Washington.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, serves as a professor emeritus of political science. Fluent in multiple languages, he has made Asia a point of focus for decades.


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