As China’s ascendance and America’s relative decline continue, the two will continue to compete for geopolitical influence, Minxin Pei (or Pei Minxin, 裴敏欣), writes in an article for The Diplomat on November 28. If 2010 was the year China made a series of strategic and tactical moves to strengthen its position in East Asia, 2011 saw the region – and America – push back. At the East Asia summit in Bali in November,
China was literally ambushed by the United States, which skillfully coordinated a pushback against China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea. Except for Burma and Cambodia, every other country present at the summit, including Russia, implicitly criticized China’s stance on the South China Sea and called for a multilateral solution, which China has consistently opposed.
China needed to rethink an existing policy of “befriending afar and attacking near” (远交近攻)1), Pei suggests. Otherwise, territorial disputes would antagonize Japan, Vietnam and India and [make] them eager partners of a potential anti-China coalition.
Minxin Pei’s closing remarks may be read as a purposeful provocation towards Beijing to do better – or as an indication that he sees the partners of a potential anti-China coalition safely on America’s side:
Of course, whether a one party regime known for its political paranoia can pull off a feat of such strategic dexterity and sophistication is anybody’s guess. It’s up to Beijing to prove its skeptics wrong.
In Chinese – in an article for the BBC‘s Chinese website on Monday -, Pei wrote that in Bali, Beijing had not only lost face, but had been completely isolated by the American-led network’s and other regional powers’ challenge (美国联络盟友和东亚地区的主要大国在南海问题上公开挑战中国政府的立场，使北京不仅丢脸而且十分孤立). Another major development had been that Japan announced that it wanted to join a trans-Pacific free-trade partnership2). Here, too, China appeared to be isolated. Pei also touches upon a recent US-Australian military cooperation agreement, and on secretary of state Hilary Clinton‘s visit to Myanmar. More explicitly than in his Diplomat contribution, Pei states that
Until recently, many strategic observers in the Asian region, but especially Beijing’s political elite, believed that America had fallen into irreversible decline, and that China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region would gradually exceed American influence. It now seems that this judgment was premature.
US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region was based on structural advantages which China did not have. Ever since World War 2, America’s role in the region had been based on its goal not to allow a challenger to its regional hegemony to arise in that region. American interests and all the regional countries’ interests – with the exception of China’s and the former Soviet Union’s – coincided here. While America had been busy in Afghanistan and Iraq, China’s influence in the Asian-Pacific region had grown, not least thanks to its restraint and its smile diplomacy ( literally: smile offensive, 微笑攻势) in South-East Asia. But Beijing’s more recent approach to the South China Sea, the Senkaku / Diaoyutai controversies with Japan, and its lukewarm stance on North Korea’s nuclear provocations (在朝鲜武力挑衅南韩时的不力干预) had changed Asian perceptions of China.
Much of Pei’s advice is identical with his Diplomat article, but here, too, he is more explicit. One approach for China would be to make great concessions in territorial disputes with its neighbors (在领土争端上作出极大让步), and to play an active role in regional security issues. This wasn’t likely to happen, given the CCP’s firm opposition to such a path.
A second approach amounted to steps to be taken at home, within China – the country needed to democratize. This could permanently end strategic competition with America, and dispel fears among China’s democratic neighbors, Pei believes (一是走民主化道路，这既可永久结束中美的战略竞争，亦可彻底打消周边的民主国家对中国的安全恐惧). Democratization could work in theory, but was in fact very difficult. An authoritarian (or despotic) government’s sense of security (安全感) was rather low, and besides, it lacked sincerity (or integrity, 诚信).
There are only five readers’ reactions so far, three of them from outside China, according to their signatures, and only two of them are sort of “friendly” reactions to Pei’s article, as one of them calls the CCP rogues with lots of money, and the second gives a positive appraisal of America’s role in the region (Well done, America – 美国做得好).
A commenter from Canada thinks of both recommendations as dead-end roads, and recommends a third approach: China should build an alliance with countries which were close to it, drop the principle of non-interference, firmly strike at countries which dared to be enemies, and intensify contradictions and conflicts between South-East Asian nations, so as to profit from the tensions as a third party. (简直是胡说八道，两条都是死路，中国唯一出路只有与亲中国家结盟，放弃不干涉别国内政原则，坚决打击敢与中国为敌的国家，激化东南亚国家之间的矛盾和利益冲突，以收渔人之利！)
1) the 23rd of the 36 Stratagems.
2) Earlier in November, at an APEC summit in Honolulu, Canada, Japan and Mexico expressed interest in joining the project which had until then been under discussion among America, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam, according to the Economist.