Vetting China's diplomacy: A Thai view

Vetting China's diplomacy: A Thai view

Deciphering and understanding China's foreign policy postures and conduct is akin to walking into a maze. As the world's second-largest economy with rapidly growing political clout, Beijing's external relations are becoming more sophisticated, complex and, at times, extremely assertive. Under the Trump administration, the ongoing US-China rivalry reached boiling point with widespread repercussions. Indeed, their strategic competition has now been franchised to four corners of the world through the dichotomy of "We" versus "Them".

This is unlike the Bush Junior era immediately following Sept 11, when the dichotomy was about friends versus enemies. Although we have long been in the post-Cold War era, Washington finds it comfortable to play on the old and familiar psyche of the "free world" against the "communist world", depicting the US vis-à-vis China. From Washington's perspective, it represents the remaining China card. For the rest of the world, it is no longer about the nostalgic ideological contest. What is at stake is rather their perceived role and influence in recalibrating new regional and international orders during and post-pandemic.

Under President Xi Jinping, China wants respect and recognition of its growing status, wealth and power. Since 2017, Beijing's diplomatic stands vis-à-vis its rival Washington, its allies as well as the rest of the world have been quite distinctive and unequivocal in the long annals of Chinese foreign relations. At least three observations can be made.

First and foremost, China uses the "tit for tat" strategy or yi ya huan ya, with the US, the world's most powerful country and its staunchest allies, namely Australia and Canada. Today, China can stand tall against external pressure at all levels as is no longer the weak realm of yesteryear, conceding its sovereignty or constantly kowtowing.

Beijing's responses towards these countries have been swift and hurtful, aiming at inflicting maximum damage without pondering the status quo. Australia and Canada are two prime examples. The attitude towards Beijing's diplomatic and trade responses is best described as unyielding. Over time, due to the economic dependence on China's supply chains and markets, there can only be consequences on both sides.

In the case of Australia, selective commodities such as grain, lobsters, wine, beef and other key imports have been the target of tariff hikes. Raw materials such as iron ore and coal have been spared from the restrictions due to China's domestic needs. As widely reported, Australia's economy has suffered dearly from the Chinese tit-for-tat approach.

Although Canberra has a long history of independent foreign policy, its call for the investigation of the origin of coronavirus hit a raw nerve in Bejing's top echelons as it came hot on the heels of a similar appeal by Washington.

For Beijing, it was the worst thing that could happen. After all, it was not the kind of initiative one expected from a country that shared economic interests and earned billions of dollars from its exports to China. Disagreements with China are common these days, but they should be carried out in a discreet manner and avoid the megaphone approach Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose to adopt. It is a matter of face-saving, or mainzi. Face-saving matters in Asia, which for Westerners is hard to grasp.

Now the ball is in the Australian court to ameliorate the devastated relationship. In the foreseeable future, Beijing is unlikely to play softball, as Canberra has been perceived as a nominee of US strategy and an influencer in the Indo-Pacific region. What China has done to Australia cannot be replicated elsewhere, as the latter's economic growth is increasingly dependent on China's imports.

Beijing's attitude towards Canada was not dissimilar but the tactics chosen for retaliation were different because they related to personality and public diplomacy. Now that lame-duck President Donald Trump is leaving the White House, both Beijing and Ottawa can find some common ground to settle the Huawei scandal. Both sides still have time to settle in time for the 50th anniversary of their relationship.

The second strategy is the carrot and stick strategy or hulobo jia dabang, which is used for countries that have pursued foreign policy independently regardless of the US position. This strategy is applicable to the members of the European Union and Latin America. This diplomatic tool was perfected by the US during the Cold War to persuade foreign partners to support its positions and policies. Failure to comply would have negative outcomes.

China and the EU have been subtle in engaging with one another under this strategy without reference to liberal norms and values. Fortunately, they share some common concerns such as climate change, Iran's nuclear deal, multilateralism and free trade, terrorism and cooperation within the UN system. As such, they have been perceived as protectors of the international rule of law. Their common stands on global issues also help to sustain their bilateral cooperation without drifting apart.

During the pandemic, several EU members felt comfortable asking China for quick media aid to cope with the Covid-19 virus. Beijing gladly did it without the kind of preaching and rhetoric popular in the US diplomatic discourse. Among EU members, the perception of China is more positive than in the US. For instance, Germany's Indo-Pacific strategy, released recently, did not identify China as an adversary but rather as an economic and development partner despite some caveats.

To a certain degree, China also uses this approach with Japan and South Korea. Whatever measures Beijing decided to adopt against the two neighbours would be moderate ones. Now, without Trump pointing fingers at them, the three Asian economic powerhouses have the opportunity to make a difference in their relations.

Finally, the most flexible form of Chinese foreign policy can be found in its good neighbour-style foreign policy or mulin zhengce towards developing countries, near and far. Under Mr Xi's leadership, Beijing has been extremely careful not to upset these traditionally strong links with the developing world since the Mao Zedong era, which includes Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Central America.

Dealing with countries under this category, China has been displaying humility and flexibility and none of the hardline positions often seen toward developed countries. The so-called "win-win" approach or shuang ying, has been the key principle of engagement. However, with thousands of contracts made with China especially under the mammoth Belt and Road Initiatives, problems do arise and can be of any nature. However, debt traps and unequal sharing of benefits, as well as negative impacts on the environment, seem to be the most cited concerns. As demonstrated with the past mega-contracts made with Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand, China has been pragmatic to make adjustments to suit new circumstances, or rather new temperaments, with recipient countries.

As far as the Asean-China ties are concerned, it remains to be seen how the ongoing negotiations on the code of conduct on the South China Sea will proceed. China had hoped that the code of conduct would be completed by next year in time for the commemoration of their 30th diplomatic anniversary. Asean has been steadfast in working out an effective and substantial code of conduct. Meanwhile, Beijing would like to upgrade its strategic dialogue partner with Asean to a "comprehensive dialogue partner".

These three observations are just general and broad descriptions of China's diplomacy which it has exhibited through the past four years. In a nutshell, Beijing's three-pronged approaches vary from country to country and issue to issue. Once a decision has been, China will stick to it without wavering and is ready to bear the consequences.


Kavi Chongkittavorn is veteran journalist on regional affairs.

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