Foreign Policy Priorities for Xi Jinping

China's new leader has much room to improve Beijing's international relations.

All concerned say they want to negotiate settlements, though none have retreated from maximalist stands. However, China wants to meet separately with its smaller neighbors, hoping to intimidate them in one-on-one talks, while the Southeast Asian nations want collective negotiations to strengthen their hand. The United States supports that multilateral approach, which China calls unwarranted interference in its own affairs. For the time being, Washington is trying to push all concerned into drafting a code of conduct for the islands; the goal would be to set peaceful rules for operations nearby while postponing the ownership question indefinitely. So far, China is listening but not buying.

But it has tried economic coercion to get its way. When Manila resisted Beijing’s claim to shoals near the Philippines, China—a nation plagued by adulterated food—suddenly discovered that imported Filipino bananas didn’t meet Chinese health standards. This fraudulent claim wiped out an important export market for Manila.

Resorting to military means is something China has tried before. According to China scholar Taylor Fravel of MIT, China has been involved in 23 border disputes since 1949 and has used force six times—always against relatively strong adversaries such as India, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Sheer size has allowed it to browbeat smaller adversaries into settlements without relying on military power.

All this clashes with Beijing’s claim to want a peaceful Asian region so that trade and commerce can thrive and could bring about consequences it fears most, such as a militarily strong Japan. For example, the Philippines’ foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, recently told the Financial Times that his country would “welcome” expansion of Japanese armed forces because “we are looking for balancing factors in the region and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.” This is startling from an official of a country that suffered grievously from Japanese occupation in the 1940s, but it reflects a fear of China that has spread across the region. It also explains why the Philippines and Singapore, among others, allow U.S. planes and warships to visit their ports on a recurring basis.

Those visits are part of Washington’s “rebalancing” attention to Asia after years of being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though U.S. officials don’t like to say so publicly, much of this is designed to offset China’s growing ability to project power and thus reassure American friends in the region. But Washington also tries hard to convince Beijing that much more is involved, that both nations need a peaceful and prosperous Pacific and should cooperate to keep it that way. Thus avoidable squabbles over disputed isles should not be part of the plan, nor should China do things that prompt others to greatly strengthen their own military forces—in Japan’s case, in particular, by opting for nuclear forces someday.

The American line, in fact, is that rather than shut China in, the United States is trying to pull it out. Washington wants China to act like a full member of the international community in responsible ways, enjoying the benefits of global trade and political systems while also sharing the costs of maintaining them—in brief, paying to play. To date, the Chinese approach has been rather selective, pocketing gains when possible but avoiding the burdens of such problems as Iran, North Korea and climate change.

A Confused Policy Process

One cause of Beijing’s rather incoherent foreign policy is its decision-making system. There is no national-security council or other body to coordinate views of various ministries and share crucial information among them. As far as Washington knows, the foreign and defense ministries seldom confer or exchange intelligence, and it can get worse: some Chinese ships involved in the offshore-islands confrontations belong to the fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture, and Chinese diplomats may have no idea what orders they have. Not that it necessarily matters; the foreign ministry is perhaps the weakest of all Beijing agencies, causing U.S. officials to complain of “useless conversations” with diplomats who may be wise and sophisticated but have little influence on what party leaders choose as policy.

In candid talks with senior Communist officials, the Obama administration has tried to convince them to invent a policy-making system that coordinates differing ministry views, settles on a coherent strategy and avoids glitches. But doing so would be difficult. Chinese ministries (and the Politburo members who oversee them) relish their autonomy and defend their clients, and to date aren’t willing or able to step on bureaucratic toes. The People’s Liberation Army, for example, doesn’t even report to the government but to a senior Communist Party committee headed by General Secretary Xi. Just what the defense minister does isn’t entirely clear.

Yet there are optimistic signs. Administration officials claim the United States has more frank discussions these days with senior Chinese leaders than for many years, and with some good results. When the ships get too confrontational, for example, they claim they’ve sometimes been able to get Beijing to pull back rather than risk having an overeager gunboat captain start shooting. And Washington will use its influence to persuade Japanese prime minister Abe from sending officials to what he calls the Senkakus, in order to prevent a clash there while making clear Beijing understands the U.S. role.