Keep Your Eye on Beijing

While the world focuses on the Middle East and Ukraine, China's neighbors worry about the fallout of brewing tensions along its borders. And so should we.

Wang Zhao-Pool/Getty Images
Wang Zhao-Pool/Getty Images

While the world focuses on the tragic downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine and the deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions in another of the world’s hot spots — the periphery of China — continue to simmer. There is widespread concern among many of China’s neighbors — including Japan, Vietnam, and India — that Beijing’s territorial ambitions could lead to military conflict. And that concern appears to be growing. Even the Chinese are now worried about whether such frictions could lead to war. The United States and Europe may be distracted by pressing events in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but Asians don’t have that luxury. Tensions closer to home preoccupy them, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of nearly 15,000 people in 11 Asian nations.

When asked, majorities in six of 10 Asian nations, not including China itself, express a favorable opinion of China. But Asian views of Beijing vary widely. There are few fans of Beijing in either Japan (7 percent favorable view of China) or in Vietnam (16 percent), both of which share long-standing territorial disputes with China that have rekindled old animosities. (The animus goes both ways. Just 8 percent of Chinese voice support for Japan, a distaste that also has its roots in history.) Moreover, the Japanese, Filipinos, and Vietnamese consider China the greatest threat to their country when asked about their top allies and threats.

At the same time, more than seven in 10 Pakistanis (78 percent), Bangladeshis (77 percent), Malaysians (74 percent), and Thais (72 percent) express a positive view of China. This may, in part, be due to the fact that 75 percent of Thais, 70 percent of Bangladeshis and 69 percent of Malaysians see China’s growing economy as good for them. Moreover, both the Malaysians and the Pakistanis see Beijing as their principal ally.

Beijing is Asia’s largest economic and military power, and with that status comes growing frictions with its neighbors. Given that fact, there is widespread concern among publics in East, Southeast, and South Asia that Beijing’s territorial ambitions and attendant disputes could boil over into military conflicts. That apprehension is also shared by many Americans looking on from afar.

Among the most prominent of the rows that stretch around much of China’s periphery is that with its longtime adversary Japan, over what Tokyo calls the Senkaku Islands and Beijing terms the Diaoyu Islands, small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. In addition, the Philippines and China are embroiled in a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Vietnam disputes China’s oil drilling off the Paracel Islands off Vietnam’s coast. And Beijing claims that the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which the two nations battled over in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, actually belongs to China.

In a 2013 Pew Research survey, strong majorities in the Philippines (90 percent), Japan (82 percent), South Korea (77 percent), and Indonesia (62 percent) said that territorial disputes with China were a big problem for their country. And nearly all Japanese (96 percent) and South Koreans (91 percent), and a majority of Filipinos (68 percent), thought China’s expanding military capabilities were bad for their country.

In the 2014 Pew Research poll, majorities in eight of the 11 Asian countries surveyed are worried that China’s territorial ambitions could lead to military conflict with its neighbors. In a number of the nations closest to China, overwhelming proportions of the public expressed such fears, including 93 percent of Filipinos, 85 percent of Japanese, 84 percent of Vietnamese, and 83 percent of South Koreans. Moreover, 61 percent of the public in the Philippines and 51 percent in Vietnam say they are very concerned about a possible military confrontation with Beijing.

Notably, even many Chinese share such worries. Roughly six in 10 Chinese (62 percent) are concerned about a possible conflict with one or more neighboring nations because of territorial frictions. And the 2013 Pew Research survey did find deep Chinese hostility toward at least one neighbor: Japan. At that time, 78 percent of Chinese said that Japan had not sufficiently apologized for its military actions in the 1930s and 1940s.

About half of Indonesians (52 percent) and Thais (50 percent) also voice concern about a conflict with China even though neither nation shares a border with China. Pakistanis (49 percent), who have an overwhelmingly favorable view of China and close economic and strategic ties with Beijing, also express worry that China’s ambitions could lead to war.

South Korean sentiment highlights the often conflicting emotions China’s neighbors harbor about the big guy on the Asian block. A majority (56 percent) of Koreans maintain a favorable opinion of China, perhaps in part because a similar majority (57 percent) say China’s growing economy is good for South Korea. But 83 percent are also concerned that territorial disputes could lead to military conflict. It is possible that Koreans fear the latter could threaten the former. Or it could be that for all their economic and cultural ties with China, Koreans still distrust Beijing.

Meanwhile, Americans watch all this Asian regional territorial tension with a wary eye. The United States has a long-standing security alliance with Japan, a new military pact with the Philippines, a budding economic relationship with Vietnam, and a long-term interest in improving strategic ties with India. With such equities in Asian stability, two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) are concerned that territorial disputes with China’s neighbors could lead to a regional military conflict.

In the wake of Beijing’s rise as a regional and global economic and military power, there is a growing consensus around China’s periphery that Beijing’s territorial ambitions threaten stability. Irrespective of who is right or wrong with regard to individual claims of national sovereignty, Beijing’s actions seem to be uniting its neighbors in their concern about future peace in the region. Such sentiment suggests that despite the centripetal economic forces drawing China’s neighbors ever closer to the Middle Kingdom, territorial and sovereignty issues could yet trump commercial interests and lead to a regional conflict. Moreover, security concerns among China’s Asian neighbors also highlight why the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” has both an economic component — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — and a military one. From northeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent, Asian publics have security concerns that only the United States can address.

Even as Washington and other Western capitals are understandably preoccupied with Ukraine and the Middle East, the pot in Asia is simmering towards a boil. Asians are worried. Americans are worried. And such concerns are worsening.

Bruce Stokes is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Twitter: @bruceestokes

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