China’s Troubled Neighbors

By PHILIP BOWRING

HONG KONG — Appropriately, the meeting straddled the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen massacre. Defense ministers and top brass from the United States, China and a host of lesser regional powers were in Singapore for meetings known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. Just as June 4 in Beijing ended many illusions about the nature of the Communist Party of China, so events of the past year have stripped away many illusions about the country’s “peaceful rise.”

No longer does the region assume that peace is a given and Chinese economic growth will not create other problems. Instead, the focus is on managing conflicts and attempting to allay mutual suspicions through dialogue.

China is trying hard to make up for its diplomatic setbacks in 2010, when, in quick succession, it picked territorial fights with Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan and India, and angered South Korea by not condemning Pyongyang’s aggressions. Partly as a consequence, the United States was spurred into declaring that peace and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea were among its vital interests. The U.S. focus is on the importance of open access to the commerce that is the lifeblood of most of East Asia.

Now China is making every effort to put on a smiling face, while the United States is keen to show it wants dialogue with China’s military, recently hosting the P.L.A.’s chief of staff. President Hu Jintao has visited the United States, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been conveying good will around the globe, and China has been emphasizing how far behind the United States it lags in armaments. But it is too late for China to restore the status quo ante.

The U.S. economy may be in deep difficulty, likewise Japan and militarily weak Southeast Asia. Australia is increasingly dependent on exporting to China, and India is keenly aware of how far it lags China in military technology. But it’s just these weaknesses, combined with Beijing’s boasting of its capability to project power, that have made the other countries in the Western Pacific and Indian oceans aware more than ever of their common interests. Indonesia has begun to attach more importance to Asean, which in turn is focusing more on issues other than economic cooperation. As for the United States, defense cuts are unlikely to affect its military capabilities in the Pacific.

China is also finding it difficult to translate top-level smiles into restraint. Days before the Shangri-La meeting, it damaged a Vietnamese exploration vessel off Vietnam’s central coast, within what other countries regard as Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. A feisty Hanoi, with old connections to Russia and India and warming ties with the United States, has galvanized others in the region to see the South China Sea as a crucial test of China’s intent.

But for China, balancing diplomatic necessities with nationalistic impulses is proving difficult. One example is its first aircraft carrier. Bought as a shell from Ukraine in 1998, the vessel is about to become operational. Reportedly named the “Shi Lang” after the Manchu Dynasty general who in 1683 conquered Taiwan, the aircraft carrier will be a source of pride and a constant reminder to China’s neighbors that they would do well to bolster their regional alliances.

Nor does China get much help from its few real friends. Pakistan’s prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, may have embarrassed the United States by praising China to the skies during a recent visit. But he also embarrassed Beijing by asserting that China has offered to build a naval base for Pakistan at Gwadar, close to the Gulf of Oman, to which China would have access. While this was probably an exaggeration, it touched Indian nerves.

The major focus of arms build-ups, however, remains neither the South China Sea nor the Indian Ocean but Northeast Asia. Whether or not this constitutes an “arms race,” there is plenty of reaction to China’s acquisition of missiles, stealth aircraft and a range of other sophisticated weapons. Japan and South Korea may have no answer to Beijing’s strategic arsenal, but the sophistication of their surface and submarine fleets is more than equal to China’s, and Japan also has close military cooperation with Australia. In the wider context, U.S.-Japan disagreements over repositioning Okinawa bases are a minor issue. Russia too is reviving its long-decayed Pacific fleet.

In any case, China’s emergence has upset the status quo. Beijing’s actions, be they conciliatory or aggressive, will set the tone for the future, and hence the relationships between the United States and the other nations of the region.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on June 8, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: China’s Troubled Neighbors.

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