After America's “Return To Asia,” It’s Time For China To Do The Same

Analysis: The Obama administration has made its intentions clear in shifting US foreign policy attention toward Asia. Why has Beijing failed to understand the importance of strong diplomacy in its own backyard?

Presidents Hu and Obama in 2009 (Dave Souza)
Presidents Hu and Obama in 2009 (Dave Souza)
Xie Tao 经济观察报

BEIJING - The American "return to Asia" policy has been hotly debated in China. But the question I want answered is: Should China also return to Asia?

The reason why America's return to Asia has been welcomed with fanfare by most Asian countries is due to the strained relations between China and so many of its neighbors.

The expression that the United States is "returning" to Asia is actually misleading. Since the Spanish-American War in 1898, and in particular, since World War II, the United States has always played a vital role in the Asia-Pacific region. It has mutual defense treaties with Japan and South Korea. Although it broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, it is nonetheless committed to maintaining Taiwan's security through the Taiwan Relations Act.

Until 1991, America had bases in the Philippines - the naval base at Subic Bay and the Clark Air Force Base. After they were returned to the Philippines, America soon built another naval base at Changi in Singapore.

Since the Second World War, America has fought two wars in eastern Asia. The Korean war lasted more than three years and the war against Vietnam more than a decade. If the first one was a setback for America which had just achieved a great victory in the Second World War, the second one debilitated America and triggered the biggest ever anti-war movement and unprecedented domestic social unrest.

If the North Korean and Vietnam wars did not make America leave, it's hard to imagine that America will ever say farewell to Asia.

We would have to go back to President George W. Bush's tenure. After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration put all its efforts into anti-terrorism. Since the terrorism battlefield is in the Middle East, East Asia became the "forgotten corner" for years. It was forgotten to such an extent that the Secretary of State during President Bush's second mandate, Condoleezza Rice, was twice absent, in 2005 and 2007, from the ASEAN Regional Forum, which is a vital channel for America's dealings with Asia. Worse still, the Bush government also canceled at the last moment the first ASEAN-American summit in 2007 that was meant to celebrate their dialogue and partnership of 30 years. That irritated a lot of these countries' leaders.

This then was the context for President Obama's high-profile return to Asia. In February 2009, the newly appointed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made a point of choosing Asia for her first foreign visit – Japan, India, Indonesia and China – instead of going to Europe or the Middle East, as is customary.

Last year, in an article called America's Pacific Century, Clinton described how America's strategic focus over the next decade will shift, from the Middle East, to the Asia-Pacific region.

China's "eternal ache"

So what has China done in the past 10 years, and what does it plan to do in the coming 10 years, in the face of this shift in U.S. policy?

In the past 10 years, China's economy and military strength have progressed greatly. In contrast, America has been bogged down in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The financial crisis that swept the whole world in 2008 made matters even worse.

Nevertheless, relative to its economic and military achievements, China's diplomatic performance has been less than stellar. Not only hasn't it improved its peripheral situation in the past 10 years, but conditions have actually deteriorated.

Although China has always claimed to be implementing a policy of good neighborliness and friendship, and has also repeatedly stressed its adherence to the path of peaceful development, the reality is that rising tension between China and many of its neighboring countries continues to rise. The possible outbreak of actual armed conflict in certain localized areas has increased significantly.

In the March 2010 Cheonan incident, when the South Korean warship was sunk by North Korea, the Chinese government refused to publicly condemn North Korea. Because of China's insistence, the UN Security Council was unable to condemn North Korea either. Since then, relations between China and South Korea have fallen to their lowest ebb since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1992.

In September 2010, a Chinese fishing boat collided with a Japanese patrol ship in the Diaoyu Islands. The Japanese detained fourteen fishermen and triggered a tough response from the Chinese government.

While China's diplomatic goal is aimed at weakening America's influence in Northeast Asia, the two clashes have made Japan and Korea attribute greater value to their alliance with America.

Apart from disputes with Korea and Japan, China also has had disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines over the sovereignty of several islands in the South China Sea, which, in turn, led to military exercises by America and the two countries. The usually calm South China Sea suddenly smells of gunpowder.

When the United States turned its attention from Asia while combating terrorists, China didn't, unfortunately, grasp the opportunity to improve its relations with its neighboring states. Instead, is has "left" Asia in its own way.

Moral authority v. Money diplomacy

The first question is why these neighboring states, which have a high level of economic interdependence with China, remain in a state of tension? The facts show that there's no causal relationship between economic exchanges and politics. Sino-US and Sino-EU relations both demonstrate that trade relations are not a natural corollary of mutual political trust of two parties.

In comparison with promoting trade and economic exchanges, it is a much harder task to build up mutual political trust.

A country's foreign policy ought to have moral authority. Such authority is specifically manifest in universal values ​​such as individual freedom, political democracy, and social equality. In the absence of moral authority, foreign policy becomes naked Machiavellian power politics: one only has eternal interests, no permanent friends.

As Professor Yan Xuetong put it, to win the world's heart China would have to implement benevolent domestic governance first.

Second, what has China gained in its "charm offensive momentum" in Africa, Europe and Latin America in the past decade? Instead of concentrating those precious years in improving relations with peripheral states, China had invested a great deal of diplomatic and economic resources in faraway places.

China's domestic economic development indeed needs more overseas markets and more raw materials. However, has our investment in Africa brought much in return in the end? The Libyan war caused a great deal of capital losses for Chinese companies invested there. Because of its huge oil interests in Sudan, China's position on the Darfur issue has invited the international community's unanimous dissatisfaction.

China has also brought large orders to the Europeans and contributed generously to the debt crisis in Europe. Yet the EU does not relax its export controls over China nor become a magic weapon to counterbalance the United States. In Latin America, we launched money diplomacy. But what have we harvested in the backyard of the United States?

In fact, China's intention of "walking outwards' seems to have just increased resentment and a sense of threat in many countries. Not only hasn't it gained friends, the international community also feels that China is trying to establish a new international order. Can this last?

Third, why should some of our past history affect today's diplomacy? For instance, the North Korean War was the product of a particular historical period. Why should China's relations stay attached to that time?

At that time, China did not have diplomatic relations with America, nor South Korea, whereas today, they are both important economic partners for China. Yet China is affected in its diplomatic policy in Northeast Asia by the North Koreans, with whom it keeps an ambiguous relation. This "smears' China in the international community.

The Sino-Japan relation is an even more complex one that tends to evoke much emotion. Nonetheless, if Israel and France are able to make peace with Germany, and America with Vietnam, why not China and Japan?

The United States is powerful, but Canada and Mexico do not try to win over China to counterbalance the United States. Strength itself is not frightening: what intimidates is the intention behind the strength.

Read the original article in Chinese

Photo - Dave Souza (White House)

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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