Last month, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague published its ruling on the South China Sea dispute between China and the Philippines. China came out of it worse, while the Philippines was the winner. Vietnam, which has been involved in a series of territorial water disputes with China, was jubilant over the tribunal’s ruling.
However, Beijing believes that Washington was plotting behind the scenes to influence the tribunal’s findings. As a result, a series of anti-US campaigns to boycott US fast-food restaurants McDonald’s and KFC began in Hebei Province. This was followed by campaigns to boycott Philippine products and to refuse to travel to the Philippines.
On July 29, Chinese hackers breached the computer systems at two of Vietnam’s major airports, in addition to the Vietnam Airlines Web site, and put up the message: “The South China Sea belongs to China.” In addition, fewer Chinese tourists are visiting Vietnam.
On July 8, the South Korean government announced that it plans to deploy the US-supplied Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system. This met with fierce protests from Beijing, since the system’s radar coverage would extend over northern China. Rumors began to surface in China of a boycott of events featuring South Korean entertainers.
In Taiwan, following President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) inauguration on May 20, Chinese tourism has dropped off, and since Tsai took office, there has been a constant stream of anti-Taiwanese posts by Chinese Internet users.
Last month, Taiwanese actor Leon Dai (戴立忍) was replaced in a Chinese film for failing to clarify his views on Taiwanese independence. There have also been rumors that all Taiwanese entertainers wanting to work in China have to sign a written pledge that they “oppose secession.”
Chinese tourists to Hong Kong have greatly decreased in number following the “Umbrella revolution” in 2014. The divide between Hong Kong and mainland China has become extremely serious.
Since 2012, because of a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) — known as the Senkakus in Japan — relations between Beijing and Tokyo have soured. In the same year, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un took over from his father, North Korean-Chinese ties rapidly worsened and old problems resurfaced.
It is clear that China’s relationships with its regional neighbors are far from cordial.
Former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) promoted a “good neighbor diplomacy,” and during the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 16th National Congress in 2002, the party promoted a policy of “friendship and partnership with neighbors.”
In 2003, then-Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) advocated the creation of a “friendly, peaceful and prosperous neighborhood.”
However, Hu’s good-neighbor diplomacy has now morphed into hostility toward China’s neighbors — and even the use of boycotts against them. Beijing frequently employs boycotts of tourism, goods and entertainers as a way to enact revenge on other countries.
Perhaps, 10 years ago, China’s leaders understood the importance of keeping their powder dry and concealing their strength, and for this reason adopted a low-key and amicable stance toward their neighbors.
Now, Beijing considers China to have attained the status of a powerful nation. China’s leaders have stoked up nationalist sentiment and, since taking up office, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has adopted a tough outward stance, which has triggered an air of arrogance in Beijing.
Consequently, Beijing believes it no longer needs to accept compromise or make concessions and that it must start to “get on and do things.”
However, China’s economy has recently begun to show signs of slowing down and social problems abound. The country also faces increasingly serious problems of flooding and droughts, which only serve to add to a lack of confidence about the future. China’s leaders are also suspicious of the country’s close neighbors and question whether they harbor ulterior motives.
This contradictory cocktail of arrogance mixed with an inferiority complex will lead to many emotionally led external actions, and even excessively aggressive behavior.
From Xi’s point of view, hostility directed abroad is a way to deflect the attention of the public away from domestic problems, let them vent their dissatisfaction with the “status quo” and give more support to the central leadership in order to resist foreign aggression.
However, it will not be easy for Xi to put the toothpaste back into the tube: As time goes on, it will become increasingly difficult for the CCP to restrain itself and control nationalist sentiment.
Yet if Xi does not continue with his tough stance, he might leave himself open to criticism: He who rides the tiger will find it difficult to dismount.
This is to say nothing of the fact that the anti-Xi faction within the CCP is secretly waiting for Xi’s tough-man stance to backfire on him so that they can criticize his foreign policy as having been a total failure.
When China starts to allow trade with other countries to become overly influenced by political considerations — such as Beijing’s use of Chinese tourists as a political tool — many countries will feel that such a trade relationship has become unstable, since trade can be cut off by Beijing at any time when a political incident takes place.
This will not just harm the political authority of the CCP — by eroding confidence in Beijing and China’s status as a major power — it will also cause many countries to approach trade with China with a higher degree of caution than they have done before.
Fan Shih-ping is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.
Translated by Edward Jones
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