China’s Boomerang Diplomacy

China has long insisted its goal is a peaceful rise, but Asia’s largest economy has ruffled the feathers of close neighbors along the way. Hu Jintao, outgoing president, bears some responsibility, suggests Stein Tønnesson of the East Asian Peace program, University of Uppsala. Assertive language, including territorial claims of small rocks and reefs, and disregard for North Korea’s belligerence unnerves many of China’s neighbors, pushing them to seek closer security ties with the United States. Security worries naturally extend to trade and other areas of exchange. Tønnesson lists the neighbors and their grievances, including rising conservatism in South Korea, cancelled rare-earth exports to Japan, and cut seismic cables for joint oil explorers Vietnam and India. “It’s unlikely that there is some sinister plan behind Hu’s boomerang policy,” Tønnesson concludes. “Instead, the more likely reasons are mental attitude, inertia and fixation.” New party secretary, Xi Jingping has an opportunity to turn a new page on foreign relations. – YaleGlobal

China’s Boomerang Diplomacy

China’s treatment of East Asian neighbors hits back and undermines its peaceful development
Stein Tønnesson
Friday, November 16, 2012

Asians push back: Japan defies China by inviting the Dalai Lama to the Diet (top); Filipinos protest against Chinese territorial claims

STOCKHOLM: As party Secretary General Hu Jintao hands over the baton to Xi Jinping, it’s a good time to assess China’s foreign policy under his leadership. With Japanese leaders defying China’s warning to receive the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, and the reelected US president visiting Southeast Asian countries with close ties to  China, the signs suggest that China’s success won’t come easy. Yet that was not foreseen in September 2011, when a whitepaper was launched on “China’s Peaceful Development.” A basis for that study was China’s wish to avoid repeating the failures of Imperial Germany, Meiji Japan, the Third Reich or the Soviet Union, and instead secure its developmental peace for the long haul.

Two keys to success are mutual economic dependence across the Pacific and a good-neighbor policy. China wants its neighbors to feel sufficiently safe not to let themselves be used in attempts to contain or encircle China.

Oddly enough, Hu Jintao has mostly done the opposite of what the program implies. He has pushed China’s neighbors away so they have invited the United States to increase its regional role. President Obama happily responded by “pivoting” back to Asia and letting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travel to virtually all of China’s neighbors. Last year the United States took a seat at the East Asian Summit, a forum meant as the region’s own. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has promised that 60 percent of the US Navy shall be deployed in the Pacific.

The United States is engaged in negotiations to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement (TPP), without China. If the woes of the world economy should provoke a global recession, leading to a breakdown of the global trade system, then the networks of bilateral trade agreements and free trade areas now being established could determine who continues to trade with whom. Admittedly, this is an unlikely scenario, but wise leaders do worst-case planning. And China could give priority to negotiating a free trade area for East Asia’s largest economies: Japan, South Korea and itself. Trilateral meetings have been held, but with deteriorating relations over territorial disputes the prospect for them to be productive seems bleak. 

What has China done to hurt its neighbors? Take Korea. In March 2010, when North Korea torpedoed the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan and later in the year launched an artillery barrage against an island held by South Korea, China refused to condemn these acts of aggression in the UN Security Council. The result? The six-party talks, which China hosted, are in shambles, and China made it easy for a conservative South Korean president to dismantle every aspect of Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s sunshine policy, forge closer ties with the United States and also talk security with Japan. There’s high probability that another conservative president will be elected this December.

Relations with Japan are even worse. In September 2010, when the Japanese coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing vessel near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu rocks west of Taiwan and the Japanese judiciary wanted to prosecute the Chinese captain, China ignored Japanese invitations to resolve the issue through discreet diplomacy and instead made loud threats, cancelled collaborative projects, and interrupted export of rare earth materials. The rest of the world scrambled to break China’s virtual monopoly and ensure rare-earths production elsewhere. The result of China’s rogue diplomacy was that a governing party in Japan aspiring to a more independent foreign policy made a U-turn. Japan asked the United States to confirm that their mutual defense treaty covered the Diaoyu/Senkaku rocks. Once the United States gave its assurances, the captain was released. The United States thus moved close to backing up Japan’s controversial claim.  This year, China over-reacted when the Japanese government bought the Senkakus from a private owner in order to prevent an activist mayor from getting hold of them.

China’s relations with Vietnam have also gone through crises. Last spring Chinese marine surveillance vessels cut seismic cables under ships conducting surveys in areas that Vietnam considers part of its continental shelf, with solid basis in the law of the sea. In June this year the China National Offshore Oil Company, CNOOC, issued a string of oil blocks for tender along the Vietnamese coast. The aim may have been to frighten away the Indian state-owned oil company ONGC Videsh from exploring for oil with PetroVietnam. The result was popular demonstrations in front of China’s embassy in Hanoi two years in a row and closer security co-operation between Vietnam and the United States, as well as Vietnam and India. Communist Vietnam has become one of America’s best regional friends, and China has one more problem with India.

Ditto the Philippines. In April, Chinese surveillance vessels prevented the Philippines from stopping Chinese fishing near Scarborough shoal, consisting of five small disputed rocks. Several dozen ships were locked in a standoff for several weeks before the Philippines withdrew. To whom the rocks belong is under legitimate dispute, but there’s no doubt that the sea outside of their 12 nautical mile territorial sea is in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines. The result of Chinese interference? The Philippines purchases 10 new patrol boats from Japan and is after the Pentagon to obtain weapons, training and security guarantees.

Myanmar, which will host the US president for the first time ever this month, for many years seemed to be China’s best friend, as the military junta let Chinese companies exploit the country’s natural resources. The forest was lost, precious stones taken away. The Chinese were popular at first, but resentment grew, and this is part of the background for President Thein Sein’s decision to open Myanmar to the West.

North Korea has become even more dependent on China after trade with South Korea was interrupted in 2009. The Koreans do not have many natural resources, but they do have labor. There are plans to dispatch an army of Korean workers to take up jobs so poorly paid that the Chinese no longer want them. Expect complaints to emerge online. Already Chinese investors in North Korean mines complain about mistreatment by the regime.

China still has a few local friends. The Central Asian republics and Pakistan are probably the closest, and when Obama visits Thailand and Cambodia he may find that they are quite China-friendly too.

One exception, a truly improved friendship, is not really with a neighbor since China considers Taiwan to be a part of itself. Hu and Taiwan’s popularly elected President Ma Ying-jeou see eye to eye. Communication across the Taiwan Strait has increased to an extent that few would have thought imaginable just a few years ago. But this may be more thanks to Ma than to Hu.

It’s unlikely that there is some sinister plan behind Hu’s boomerang policy. Instead, the more likely reasons are mental attitude, inertia and fixation. Mental attitude is described in Wang Zheng’s illuminating new book, Never Forget National Humiliation! Inertia is in the system. Who knows who can set new priorities when Hu doesn’t? The fixation is on national sovereignty. Reefs and rocks in the sea have become a regional pathology that costs China far more than it can ever gain.

Among the tasks waiting for Xi when he takes over, is to strategize and reorganize China’s foreign policy.


Stein Tønnesson is research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), and leader of a six-year research programme on the East Asian Peace at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University. His most recent book is Vietnam 1946: How the War Began, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. E-mail: Website:
Copyright © 2012 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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