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Neighborly Strife

By Greg Torode, Chief Asia Correspondent, South China Morning Post

The unfolding diplomatic battle between China and the US over the region is, at this point, producing more heat than light. The running rhetorical skirmishes see mainland commentators rail against US military exercises off its coasts and attempts to divide and rule China’s neighbours; in Washington, meanwhile, a variety of analysts warn ever more vigorously against Chinese assertiveness.

One thinly veiled attack on Washington in a recent Xinhua commentary captured the mood, warning of a certain superpower that “stirred up tensions, disputes and even conflicts, then set foot in to pose as a ‘mediator’ or a ‘judge’ in a bid to maximise their own interests”.

The smoke and thunder may make for some lively reading but it risks obscuring one vital point for Beijing – what if Washington’s re-engagement across East Asia is not the problem, but merely a symptom of mounting difficulties for China in a wary region?

Mainland commentators and mainstream People’s Liberation Army generals constantly cast their challenges in a Sino-US context. If smaller neighbours are mentioned at all, such as the recent warning to Vietnam that it would “regret” its evolving military relationship with Washington, it lies within this “Clash of the Titans” framework.

Yet, for the sake of argument, remove the US from the equation and China still has problems in East Asia. A decade or so ago, it may have been a different story as the region was awash with goodwill towards an emerging China eager to engage. This was a Beijing suddenly keen to take the unprecedented step of chipping into the bailout of Thailand, led by the International Monetary Fund; a China emerging from its shell to promote cultural and sporting exchanges.

Lately, though, any soft power has taken on a decidedly harder edge. Countries large and small across East Asia have felt the iron fist in the velvet glove, far beyond Beijing’s high-profile assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.

Most recently, we have seen South Korean anger at China’s inadequate response to dealing with the fatal sinking of one of its warships by North Korea. Then there has been an Australian public appalled at perceived cultural bullying over the screening of a pro-Uygur film at the Melbourne film festival.

The Olympic torch relay two years ago was a potential goodwill opportunity squandered. South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam all agreed to participate. Yet as the event grew closer, all felt immense pressure to guarantee success at all costs. Bussed-in mainland students eventually fought on the streets of Seoul with the protesters. Vietnam was warned to ensure its dissidents staged no protest.

Even Thailand, China’s closest ally in Southeast Asia, has expressed concerns about China’s dams on the Mekong.

Against this backdrop of suspicion and concern, it is no surprise that Washington has moved to reassert its strategic primacy in the region; it is surprising only that it has taken so long to grasp the opportunity presented by Beijing’s overreach.

Washington has not moved in isolation, or unprompted. Its envoys have been listening long and hard to a chorus of East Asian concern. As a result, the United States is now formally involved in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the once-weak body is starting to dominate East Asian summitry.

Amid the fierce rhetoric, there is little visible sign that Beijing’s strategists are eyeing fresh approaches to their neighbourhood, but they certainly should be.

For all the difficulties, there remains plenty of residual goodwill to build on. The recent Sino-Asean free-trade agreement – the biggest anywhere in terms of population – and a US$10 billion joint investment co-operation fund are already starting to bear fruit.

Talking to envoys from a variety of nations, it is clear no one is in any mood to contain China. All, even the most historically suspicious, want improved ties. They just don’t want to be bullied, much less dominated.

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