Can a rebuked China manage its anger?

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Onetime shot exclusive for The Manila Times
 
WASHINGTON: China suffered a significant setback this month in its bid for dominance in the South China Sea, and its leaders are following a familiar script after such reversals: they’re making angry statements but taking little action while they assess the situation.

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The US is playing a characteristic role in such a flare-up, too. Rather than crowing about victory, it’s trying to talk the Chinese leadership off the ledge before it does something rash. The chief hand-holder in this case has been national security adviser Susan Rice, who said in a blog post Tuesday after a visit to Beijing that she had urged Chinese leaders “to manage our significant differences constructively.”

“I reiterated that our overriding interest is the peaceful resolution of conflicts and sustaining the rules-based international order,” Rice wrote. This rules-based order was precisely what Beijing had been challenging in its recent moves to seize territory in disputed waters.

The rebuke to China came in a July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, in The Hague, that shredded China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The case had been brought by the Philippines, and it challenged China’s assertion of sovereignty within what Beijing calls the “nine-dash line.” The panel held unanimously that “there was no legal basis” for these claims.

“The fact that it went against China was not a surprise, but the degree to which it went so comprehensively against them was,” said Christopher Johnson, a leading China analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Kurt Campbell, who was the State Department’s top Asia expert in the Obama administration’s first term, agreed that the arbitration ruling was “clear as a ringing bell.” Although the Chinese had said beforehand that they would ignore the panel, and called the ruling “trash paper,” the rejection was so sweeping that the Chinese seem to have paused. The Politburo is gathering for its August seaside retreat at Beidaihe, where the leadership will assess policy before taking new steps.

The Chinese have refrained, at least initially, from one specific challenge of the ruling: US officials had feared that if the Philippines case went against them, the Chinese would announce an “Air Defense Identification Zone,” or ADIZ, for the South China Sea, to further assert their sovereignty. The US is said to have warned that such a declaration would be sharply opposed by Washington.

So far, no ADIZ has been announced, but some US analysts suspect this may partly reflect China’s reluctance to make a decision about the scope of an ADIZ area. Claiming the entire territory within the nine-dash line as theirs would be provocative, but trimming back the sovereignty claim to something more manageable would be a loss of face. For now, it may be easier for Beijing to remain silent.

One success for China this month is that it convinced some of its Southeast Asian allies to block a resolution affirming the arbitration panel’s ruling. Secretary of State John Kerry sought such a consensus at an Asean meeting in Laos on Monday, but he came away empty-handed. Most Southeast Asian nations strongly oppose China’s maritime expansion in the region, but allies such as Cambodia are said to have sided with China and blocked any official endorsement of the ruling.

A senior US intelligence official offered this assessment recently: “The arbitration decision was, I think, huge. The news came, and [the Chinese]are doing their damnedest to get people not to say anything about it. But it’s out there and there’s nothing that they can do about that.”

The deeper problem underlying the South China Sea dispute is the increasingly assertive nationalism of Chinese President Xi Jinping. But here, too, the Chinese appear to have taken a step back from the public anti-US agitation that immediately followed the ruling. State-run media initially blamed the US, and there were scattered demonstrations in which Chinese protesters smashed iPhones and demonstrated at KFC franchises.

One leading China analyst notes that the media agitation has now eased, with some commentators even criticizing “irrational” anti-US fervor. “That’s a signal the Chinese want to cool things down—a good sign indicating that diplomacy is working behind the scenes,” explains this analyst.

What a contrast there is between this delicate, real-life diplomacy and the blunderbuss approach advocated by Donald Trump and other critics of China. Despite Rice’s calming visit, the Chinese leadership knows that its US relationship is entering an interregnum—and Beijing can’t predict what comes next.

© 2016, WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

davidignatius@washpost.com

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2 Comments

  1. Definitely, China will be able to manage it’s anger when it loss it’s face with the internal and external communities. Even ordinary Chinese are wondering why China’s CCP leadership wanted to claim 85% of South China Sea and Spratley Islands which is approximately 1000 miles from it’s nearest shore. The hardest part in China’s leadership is to explain what they are fighting for to it’s people.
    In order to better understand Chinese foreign policy I have read an article about “The Chinese Meaning of Just war and it’s impact on foreign policy”. One of the chapters is very interesting and I quote, “For the identification of Just War criteria it must be recognized that there is no difference between the emperor’s behavior within a state and towards other states. From a Confucian perspective, power and authority are not enforced by violence; rather, Confucian authority is based on a moral perception of power. A moral and supreme emperor seizes power without the use of force. So with regard to foreign affairs and the question of war, the Confucian emperor is victorious without fighting. It is, therefore, important to recognize the fundamental correlation between internal and external affairs while analyzing the Confucian writings about questions of (Just) War.
    It’s a very good article that one must read.

  2. If China wants to be respected as a member of the International community then it should also respect the International Law of the Seas or will be condemned forever as a country that can’t be trusted.