America's Next Big Challenge: Countering China’s Diplomatic Blitzkrieg

It is clear that China has combined proactive diplomacy with large-scale economic incentives to quell any regional backlash against its maritime assertiveness across the Western Pacific. What will Washington do?

Much to the delight of China, recent weeks have witnessed a dramatic reorientation in the Asian strategic landscape. Demonstrating sophisticated statecraft, Chinese president Xi Jinping astutely utilized the recently concluded Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit to emphasize Beijing’s centrality to regional prosperity and stability. Xi rekindled communication channels with estranged neighbors such as Japan and Vietnam, exploring various mechanisms to de-escalate territorial tensions in the Western Pacific. The summit featured icy bilateral meetings between the Chinese leader (with a poker face) and his Japanese and Vietnamese counterparts, namely Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Truong Tan Sang. The meetings came on the heels of weeks of preparation by special envoys to facilitate a formal meeting between their respective heads of states. There was also an informal talk between Xi and his Filipino counterpart, Benigno Aquino, who welcomed his first direct contact with the Chinese president.

There was a huge element of symbolism to the whole affair, and how the meetings were choreographed by Beijing and framed by the Chinese media. Xi, widely considered China’s first paramount leader in decades, acted like a benevolent Chinese emperor, receiving humbled emissaries seeking more stable ties with the Middle Kingdom. But the meeting with Abe was particularly awkward. Traditionally, Chinese leaders await their guests and warmly welcome them with smiles and handshakes. The Japanese leader, however, had to anxiously wait for his Chinese host at Beijing's Great Hall of the People, settling for no smiles and a cold handshake. It marked a huge departure from Abe’s very friendly, landmark meeting with Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, back in 2006, when both sides fervently hailed a “turning point” in their bilateral relations. This time, Xi and Abe settled for expressing their mutual interest in preventing a military conflict, preserving high-stakes economic ties and reiterating their previous agreements, over the past four decades, on friendship and cooperation. Overall, however, the meeting was shrouded in strategic ambiguity: It isn’t clear whether there was any major compromise on bilateral differences, particularly on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute.

The APEC summit served as Xi’s coming-out party, presenting himself as a global leader. He boldly projected China as the most consequential economic player in the Asia-Pacific theater, proposing an ambitious Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which, if implemented, would render the U.S.-proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement as superfluous. Immediately after the APEC summit, Chinese premier Li Keqiang followed suit, launching a charm-offensive during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Myanmar. Proposing a “diamond decade” between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors, China dangled $20 billion in loans to the ASEAN, offered to host an ASEAN-China defense-ministers meeting, and proposed the establishment of an ASEAN-China defense hotline. Among other things, China’s recent diplomatic offensive seems to have blunted any efforts by rival claimant states to develop a unified position vis-à-vis Beijing’s maritime assertiveness across the Western Pacific. No wonder, there was hardly any serious effort by the ASEAN and rival claimant states—with the exception of the Philippines—to push for a binding Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea. China has reverted to its tried-and-tested economic statecraft, leveraging large-scale trade and investments schemes to divide and dominate its neighbors.

Shifting Sands

To put things into perspective, one should acknowledge how just a few months ago, China seemed isolated. Earlier this year, China risked a major regional backlash when it dispatched multiple oil rigs into Vietnamese-claimed waters in the South China Sea, sparking panic among rival claimants and encouraging Pacific powers such as Japan, India and Australia to step up their strategic cooperation. Even ASEAN, notorious for its internal divisions and often-subservient stance vis-à-vis Beijing, was forced to express its displeasure with China’s provocative actions.