Mountains of Norwegian salmon left rotting at a port. A beachfront resort in Palau abandoned before completion. A sluggish response to a devastating Philippine typhoon.
Crossing China’s “red lines” can have painful economic consequences.
Beijing is looking to build up its political and diplomatic status as a “major responsible country” commensurate with its global economic position and improve its cultural reach worldwide.
As well as the world’s second-largest economy, China is its biggest trading nation in goods and Africa’s biggest trading partner, a fact highlighted last week by Japan’s attempt to present itself as a competitor on the continent.
However, experts have said Beijing’s tactical moves toward smaller countries risk backfiring against its broader strategy.
Beijing has sought to punish Norway since the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to jailed dissident and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo (曉波) — despite Oslo having no control over the prize committee’s decisions.
Strict new import controls left Norwegian salmon wasting away in Chinese warehouses and its market share in the country, once 92 percent, plummeted to 29 percent last year.
A musical starring Norwegian Eurovision 2009 winner Alexander Rybak had its tour canceled and Norwegians are excluded from China’s 72-hour transit visa schemes.
“The ‘bully boy’ tactics China has adopted, especially with regard to small nations such as Norway... are typical of a passive-aggressive kind of personality,” said Phil Mead, a British businessman who helps small Chinese companies in the European market.
Such behavior makes Beijing “look petty and spiteful in the eyes of the world,” Mead said in a blog post.
Norway is far from the only country subjected to China’s wrath.
Beijing is embroiled in a South China Sea territorial row with Manila, and after Super Typhoon Haiyan struck in November last year — the most powerful recorded storm ever to make landfall — it initially offered the Philippines only US$100,000.
After a storm of criticism, China upped its contribution to US$1.8 million and dispatched its Peace Ark hospital ship, but the response paled in comparison to Japan’s US$30 million, the US’ US$20 million and even some private companies’ contributions.
“China lags IKEA in aid to Philippines,” one newspaper wrote, comparing Beijing’s initial offer with US$2.7 million from the Swedish furniture chain’s charitable foundation.
A year earlier, after a maritime standoff, China suddenly imposed a raft of restrictions on banana imports from the Philippines, claiming it had found pests in shipments.
Tonnes of fruit were left to rot at Chinese and Philippine ports, with losses estimated at US$23 million.
In 2009, after the Pacific island nation of Palau announced it would accept six Uighur detainees released from the US’ Guantanamo Bay military prison and considered terrorists by Beijing, construction of a Chinese-backed, 100-room beachfront resort was abruptly halted.
Experts say the “red lines” that trigger Chinese threats and retribution are limited to a tight set of very specific issues.
They include relations with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama; criticism of China’s leadership or human rights record; territorial disputes in the East and South China seas; Taiwan; and unrest in Xinjiang, the far western region home to the mostly Muslim Uighur ethnic minority.