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Opinion Inside China’s ‘tantrum diplomacy’ at APEC

Chinese and Papua New Guinea flags line a street in front of the parliament building in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, host of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. REUTERS/David Gray

PORT MORESBY, PAPUA NEW GUINEA — For the first time in its 20-year history, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit ended in disarray Sunday when the 21 member countries could not reach consensus on a joint statement because of objections by one member — China. When the summit failed, to the disgust of the other diplomats, Chinese officials broke out in applause.

But that was only the final incident in a week during which China’s official delegation staged a series of aggressive, bullying, paranoid and weird stunts to try to exert dominance and pressure the host nation and everyone else into succumbing to its demands.

“This is becoming a bit of a routine in China’s official relations: tantrum diplomacy,” a senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations told me. “Them walking around like they own the place and trying to get what they want through bullying.”

Even before the summit started, and continuing right up to its end, Chinese officials used every opportunity to strong-arm or undermine the host nation government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the other summit members. Chinese tactics included being thuggish with the international media, busting into government buildings uninvited, papering the capital city of Port Moresby with pro-Beijing propaganda and possibly even using cyberattacks to stifle the message of Vice President Pence, the U.S. delegation leader.

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I was traveling with Pence, and the APEC summit was his last stop in a week-long Asia tour, which included visits to Japan, Australia and Singapore, where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit was held. The PNG stop was a showdown of sorts between Pence and Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had been in Port Moresby for several days prior for an official state visit.

China’s attempted “charm offensive” was visible everywhere. The Chinese delegation had filled the streets of Port Moresby with Chinese flags for Xi’s state visit. The PNG government demanded that they be taken down before the APEC summit, U.S. officials said. The Chinese officials eventually complied, but then replaced them with solid red flags — almost identical to the official Chinese flags, but without the yellow stars.

A huge banner along a major thoroughfare touted China’s One Belt, One Road economic initiative as “not only a road of cooperation and win-win situation, but also a road of hope and peace!” In his speech at APEC, Pence called it “a constricting belt” and “a one-way road.”

China’s first outwardly intimidating move was to ban all international media from Xi’s meeting with the leaders of eight Pacific nations. Journalists had traveled from around the region to attend the event, and the PNG government gave them credentials. But Chinese officials barred them from entering the building and only allowed China’s state media to cover it. A U.S. official called it an “own goal” by China, because the journalists then could only write about China’s brutish behavior.

Things got worse from there. On Saturday, Xi and Pence were the final two official speakers at the public part of the summit. They gave their speeches on a cruise ship docked off the coast, while most journalists were stationed on shore in the International Media Center. But five minutes into Pence’s remarks, the Internet in the media center crashed for most of the reporters there, meaning they couldn’t hear or report on it in real time.

Just as Pence was finishing his speech, the media center’s Internet mysteriously came back on. U.S. officials told me — although they couldn’t be sure China was responsible — they were investigating what happened.

“Was there any trouble with the Internet for the speaker before Pence?” another senior U.S. official asked me. (No.) “And who was that speaker again?” (Xi.)

Then things got even crazier. Behind the scenes, the member countries were furiously negotiating over the joint statement. Chinese officials, not happy with how they were faring inside the negotiations, demanded a meeting with the PNG foreign minister. He declined, not wanting to appear to violate PNG’s neutrality as summit chair.

The Chinese officials wouldn’t take no for an answer. They went to the foreign ministry and physically barged into his office, demanding he meet with them. He called the local police to get them out of the building. Every diplomat I talked to in PNG was stunned by China’s actions. But that’s not the end of it.

The negotiations continued into Sunday, and the Chinese delegation’s bad behavior continued apace. According to U.S. officials, Chinese officials were getting so paranoid about the statement that they began pushing into the meetings of smaller groups of countries on the summit’s sidelines. Inside the official sessions, Chinese officials yelled about countries “scheming” against China. Nobody else in the room was yelling, the U.S. officials said.

All 20 countries except China finally agreed to the joint statement, except for China, the U.S. officials said. The Chinese delegation objected primarily to one line that read: “We agree to fight protectionism including all unfair trade practices.” They perceived that as singling out and targeting China.

The Chinese officials filibustered inside the session, giving long monologues, knowing that time was short and the world leaders had planes waiting to take them home. When the time ran out and therefore the summit had officially failed, the Chinese delegation stationed in a room near the main session broke out in applause, a U.S. official said.

There are three conclusions we can take away from this tragicomedy of errors put on by the Chinese government. First, they are behaving in an increasingly brazen and coercive way. This is especially true with the small Indo-Pacific countries — such as Papua New Guinea — that they are flooding with development projects and saddling with massive debt.

Second, the paranoid and oversensitive nature of much of China’s behavior is a clear indication that the government feels under threat from the United States and its allies. This is something we should be aware of (and sensitive to) as we deal with Beijing.

Lastly, the fact that Beijing is acting in a way that actually alienates other countries — which is clearly against China’s own interests — shows that Chinese official action is controlled from the top down in ways that often prevent good decision-making. Even when the Chinese delegation saw its tactics were backfiring, they didn’t have the authority to change course.

This is what the Chinese government is today: pushy, insecure, out of control and with no desire to pretend anymore they will play by the rules the international community has been operating under for decades. How to deal with that reality is the debate the rest of the world must now begin in earnest.