Shadow Government

How to Explain Xi Jinping’s Mounting Foreign-Policy Failures

Yet The Hague's decision was only the latest in a series of diplomatic setbacks for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 7: US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with China's President Xi Jinping (R) as they sit next to Chinese vice premiers Liu Yandong (R) and  US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew (L) at the Great Hall of the People at the end of the eight round of U.S-China strategic and economic dialogues on June 7, 2016 in Beijing, China. Kerry has been in China for talks on a variety of issues including seeking diplomatic solutions for the South China Sea. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)
BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 7: US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) speaks with China's President Xi Jinping (R) as they sit next to Chinese vice premiers Liu Yandong (R) and US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew (L) at the Great Hall of the People at the end of the eight round of U.S-China strategic and economic dialogues on June 7, 2016 in Beijing, China. Kerry has been in China for talks on a variety of issues including seeking diplomatic solutions for the South China Sea. (Photo by Nicolas Asfouri - Pool/Getty Images)

No one, not even President Barack Obama, has done more to make the United States welcome in Asia than Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since 2012, Xi’s foreign policy has unraveled years of careful efforts on China’s part to persuade its Asian neighbors of the “win-win” benefits of China’s peaceful rise. Under Xi, Beijing has suffered a series of diplomatic setbacks so counterproductive that they raise serious questions about his foreign-policy competence.

A brief review of the past three years shows a remarkable string of failures and foreign-policy defeats. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12th nullified China’s “Nine-Dash Line,” which is the basis for Beijing’s claim to disputed islets and reefs, and 85 percent of the South China Sea, as sovereign Chinese territory. This was a body blow, undoing a major pillar of Chinese foreign policy toward the rest of Asia. The ruling was a troubling metaphor, undermining the smiley-face image China has sought to project.

Yet The Hague’s decision was only the latest in a series of diplomatic setbacks.

It was preceded by South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD, a U.S. missile defense system, in the face of China’s strong objections and heavy-handed threats against Seoul. China’s overbearing posture, and call for South Korea to prioritize Beijing’s security concerns over Seoul’s, aimed to drive a wedge into the U.S.-South Korea alliance, but did just the opposite. The THAAD decision moved South Korea closer to the United States and opens the door to trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan strategic cooperation, long anathema to Beijing.

The THAAD decision, of course, was related to the failure of Chinese diplomacy to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile test programs. Indeed, Pyongyang thumbing its nose at Beijing’s admonitions not to conduct nuclear and missile tests was a stunning rebuke. Xi had sent a special envoy to Pyongyang to persuade North Korea against a ballistic missile test. Yet, literally as he deboarded the airplane, North Korea announced it would conduct the missile test. And for spite, Pyongyang launched it on the eve of Chinese New Year.

Defeat on the Korean peninsula was preceded by defeat in the Senkakus, the disputed rocks which Beijing had attempted to use to drive a wedge into the U.S.-Japan alliance by raising the question of whether the United States would support Japan in a conflict with China. But in April 2014, during a visit to Japan, Obama made clear that Article V of the alliance extends to the Senkakus.

Meanwhile, China’s continuing air and naval incursions into the Senkakus and East China Sea have had a major impact on Japan’s security policy, leading to the decision in 2014 to reinterpret the constitution to allow for the exercise of collective self-defense and the 2015 U.S.-Japan defense guidelines, which recognize a wider Japanese regional security role. This spring, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships made port calls in Subic Bay in the Philippines, Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, and Sydney Harbor in Australia — to Beijing’s horror. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent Upper House election victory raises the possibility of Japan amending its Peace Constitution, another long-dreaded nightmare for China.

In June, Xi’s forceful diplomacy did score a major success during a meeting between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Kunming, China, where the Chinese government pressured ASEAN to withdraw a statement of concern over tensions in the South China Sea. At the same time, Beijing’s assertive behavior in the South China Sea has led to bandwagoning and unprecedented security cooperation between Australia, Japan, the United States, and the maritime states of the region.

Beyond Asia, the losing streak continued in Europe, where the European Union, despite Chinese pressure, rejected Beijing’s bid to be granted “market economy status” in the World Trade Organization. Instead, China’s oversupply of steel and other products triggered an anti-dumping tariff from the EU and United States.

In addition, heavy handed Chinese nationalist economic policies penalizing European and U.S. businesses in favor of China’s “national champions,” particularly in the IT sector, have disillusioned the U.S. business community, long the foundation of support for the U.S.-China relationship. Absent the ballast of support from U.S. business, the already volatile U.S.-China relationship would become still more problematic, shaping the policy environment for a new U.S. president, who will have to make difficult choices.

Perhaps the Politburo Standing Committee should reread the anonymous open letter by a party member that urged Xi to resign in March. The letter found Xi to be lacking “the abilities to lead the party and country into the future,” citing his counterproductive foreign policy as abandoning caution for “dangerous adventurism.”

It defies the imagination that Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has had the unintended consequence of promoting U.S. interests and strengthening Obama’s “rebalance” — success that the State Department or the Pentagon couldn’t match on their best day.

How to explain all this? After the 2008-2009 U.S. financial crisis, Chinese analysts mistakenly concluded that the United States was in terminal decline, and that China’s moment had come to undo a century of humiliation by asserting its influence rather than biding its time as it developed its economy.

Thus, Chinese strategy is based on flawed assumptions: that China, with geography on its side, is getting bigger and militarily stronger, and that a declining United States will gradually leave the region. Asian nations will have no choice but to pay deference to China’s interests. The intriguing question is: With all of Xi’s bad bets going sour, will his Politburo comrades treat him like most companies would treat a demonstrably failed CEO? 

Photo credit: NICOLAS ASFOURI/Pool/Getty Images

Robert A Manning is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He has served as an advisor to the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, a counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs, a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and on the National Intelligence Council’s Strategic Futures Group. Follow him on Twitter at: @Rmanning4.

James J. Przystup is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

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