Now, after six tumultuous months for Chinese foreign policy and one devastating pandemic, China’s most crucial relationship — with Washington — has reached its lowest ebb in half a century after the Trump administration shuttered a Chinese consulate in Houston, imposed sanctions on China’s TikTok and WeChat apps, and coaxed Britain to ban Huawei telecommunications equipment.
In a series of four speeches this summer capped by a July 23 call by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for an “alliance of democracies” against authoritarian China, senior U.S. officials declared the United States in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the Chinese Communist Party.
And as Xi surveys the geopolitical landscape closer to home, he is encountering not a circle of friends but the emerging outlines of an adversarial bloc.
Xi’s push to quell Hong Kong with a national security law this summer drew joint condemnation from Western countries, including several that suspended extradition treaties or trading privileges with the city. His repression of ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region continues to draw global censure. A deadly border skirmish in June prompted India to boot scores of Chinese apps out of its technology market and dispatch 30,000 additional troops to the Himalayan region, where they remain at an impasse with Chinese forces.
Increased Chinese incursions into maritime territory also claimed by Southeast Asian countries, Taiwan and Japan have prompted warnings from regional officials about the potential for a serious military clash. Since July, Chinese territorial disputes have even broken out with tiny Bhutan and Tajikistan.
This week Scott Morrison, the prime minister of Australia — a country that, like India, sought a neutral tack toward China until recently — said establishing an alliance with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific was a “critical priority” and conceded the “previously inconceivable” possibility of war in Asia. Later this year, Australia is expected to join India, Japan and the United States in joint naval exercises aimed at countering China, an idea India previously ruled out as too provocative.
All told, China’s diplomatic horizons have darkened dramatically since January, when Xi was nearing a “phase one” trade truce with President Trump and planning to woo Japan and the European Union — two counterweights to Washington — in separate state visits this year. Both trips have been quietly shelved.
“Given China’s expanding security sphere, its strategy for economic and technology leadership, a trend toward conflict with its neighbors and the U.S. was inevitable,” said Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker who sits on Taiwan’s foreign affairs and national defense committee. “But nobody saw these conflicts coming together so abruptly in 2020. China is now facing what I would call a ‘latent alliance.’ ”
The question now is whether this loose grouping of countries with similar attitudes toward China will cement into something more. The answer will probably be shaped by domestic politics, especially in the United States, Wang said.
“China and everyone else is waiting to see what happens in November” in the U.S. presidential election, he said. “Would a Biden victory change things? If Trump is reelected, could he hold together this alliance? Would he want to?”
Resorting to nationalism
In Asian capitals and Washington, officials and analysts say China’s conflicts do not necessarily represent a grand, calculated scheme to seize territory or geopolitical advantage under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic — as some senior U.S. officials, including Pompeo, have repeatedly argued.
Rather, they say, China’s refusal to back down on external disputes large and small stems from a sense of political insecurity and economic pressure at home, and the need to display strength in line with the image Xi has crafted for China and for himself — a mirror image, in some ways, of an American president who has railed against China on the campaign trail while struggling to contain the coronavirus and unemployment at home.
“The fact is, Xi is running for reelection as well,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as a director for China on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council. Xi is expected to seek a third term as Communist Party general secretary at the next party conclave in 2022, something no Chinese leader has managed since Mao Zedong.
“If your platform includes a heavy dose of standing tall and firm on the world stage, you have to maintain that even if it comes at the expense of smooth relations,” Hass said.
Before January unfurled, Xi had stated a goal of delivering “moderate prosperity” for his people by 2020, a year that would cap two generations of miraculous growth. But that goal seems to have been derailed by successive blows.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, coastal manufacturing jobs were hit hard by the trade war. In the midst of the pandemic and ensuing national lockdown, the government abandoned its year-end economic growth target. And though China has since rebounded faster than almost every other economy, many independent economists say the official jobless rate of 5.7 percent does not begin to capture the looming crisis in underemployment among hundreds of millions of migrant workers and fresh college graduates.
“The only thing left for the party to resort to is nationalism,” said Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat who served in Beijing and Washington. “But nationalism is a drug. Once you use it and get tough with the United States, your people criticize you for making concessions. That is exactly what happened to Japan in the 1930s.”
In public statements, Chinese officials have portrayed their country as a deeply aggrieved victim of U.S. aggression and encirclement. The Hong Kong law, they argue, was necessary to rein in U.S.-sponsored separatists; India and Australia are not airing legitimate grievances as much as they are following the bidding of Cold Warriors in Washington.
“In the 21st century, it is inconceivable that some people intend to draw an iron curtain, stoke new division, advocate identity politics and bloc rivalry and resort to other old tricks,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Wednesday in lengthy remarks rebutting Pompeo’s July speech. “Today’s China is not the former Soviet Union.”
There is little discussion of China’s role in inflaming tensions in the country’s tightly controlled press and academic journals. But there are carefully worded warnings that China cannot afford so many enemies.
Li Kaisheng, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said in an op-ed in the nationalist Global Times newspaper this week that China should focus on its “primary conflict” — with the United States — rather than respond to every slight from other countries.
“A lion does not swat a fly as soon as it lands on it,” Li wrote. “But a porcupine pricks up as soon as anything brushes against its back.”
Even if China has alienated many of its Asian neighbors, those countries have not unconditionally embraced the United States, either. From Australia to India to Japan, all significant trading partners with China, economic pragmatism and a wariness about the ideological tinge and durability of the U.S.-led campaign have prompted intense domestic debates about how far each country should lean into an anti-China bloc.
“This is not the Cold War — it’s a completely different game from the 1950s,” said Miyake, the former Japanese diplomat who now heads the Foreign Policy Institute think tank in Tokyo. “We are dependent on China, and China is dependent on us. Chinese influence in Asia is actually much larger than Soviet influence was in Eastern Europe.”
In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known as a conservative China critic earlier in his career, now finds himself fending off a younger generation of hawkish legislators who gripe that he is reluctant to stand up to Chinese aircraft incursions in the East China Sea or the new Hong Kong security law, which Japan condemned but did not take punitive action against.
Yasuhide Nakayama, the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee who recently lobbied his Liberal Democratic Party colleagues to nix Xi’s state visit, said he was frustrated by Abe’s caution — and the moderating effect of Japan’s powerful companies.
“I want our leader to speak straight to Xi Jinping, and not just speak the business view,” Nakayama said. “Japanese business circles of course request that the ruling party avoid hot friction with China, which I understand. But Toyota and Nissan also need to understand: Times are changing. If you bow to the Chinese empire under Xi Jinping, you will need to obey him forever. That’s not freedom.”
Trapped in a tussle
In Australia, military and intelligence agencies have sharply stepped up cooperation with Washington to counter China, but the Morrison government has stopped short of labeling Beijing a competitor, as the European Union and United States have done, or deployed Cold War language.
Asked in Washington last week if she agreed with Pompeo’s views on China, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne replied: “The secretary’s speeches are his own. Australia’s positions are our own.”
Backing for the Trump administration should not be unconditional, argued James Curran, a former Australian official and expert on U.S.-Australian relations at the University of Sydney. Morrison has wisely resisted U.S. calls to join naval maneuvers to challenge China in the South China Sea, he said.
“It would have been folly for Canberra to sign on to provocative freedom-of-navigation patrols 100 days out from an election, as a Biden administration might not make that demand of us,” Curran said. “The bipartisan consensus on a tough anti-China line in Washington is well understood here. But the Australian government knows, even if it will not say it publicly, that China is crucial to its post-pandemic recovery.”
Other countries abutting the South China Sea have been more ambivalent about joining an overt alliance with the United States. Even though a half-dozen countries have complained about increased Chinese activities in the contested waters this year and two key regional players — Malaysia and Indonesia — have conducted drills with the U.S. Navy or purchased American weapons in the past 12 months, their official rhetoric has been lukewarm.
“I do not want Malaysia to be dragged and trapped in a geopolitical tussle between superpowers,” Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said this week. His words echoed recent remarks from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who fretted in a lengthy Foreign Affairs essay that Southeast Asia might face an “invidious choice” of picking between Washington- and Beijing-led blocs.
Perhaps the sharpest swing in approach toward China has come from India after a deadly brawl erupted in the highlands of Ladakh over alleged infrastructure construction and troop buildup on both sides of the India-China border. Almost overnight, attitudes toward China in New Delhi turned sharply hostile, with debate mounting over whether the country should reconsider a decades-old “nonalignment policy” that it has upheld since the Cold War.
Although the nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been relatively measured in his rhetoric, he banned 59 Chinese apps in one swoop in July and barred Chinese vendors from Indian government contracts, extreme moves that put him ahead of even the Trump administration.
“There has been a sea change in India about how we look at geopolitics and how we look at China,” said Gautam Bambawale, the former Indian ambassador to Beijing in 2017-2018.
A harder attitude toward China will likely shape Indian policies for years, regardless of who is in the White House, he said. And beyond New Delhi, a consensus was emerging that Asia’s “middle powers” should band together to counter China, even absent U.S. leadership.
“The United States is still the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific,” Bambawale said. “But it’s up to countries like Japan, India and Australia to carry other countries and pull their weight.”