How China Can Recover from Its Month of Humiliation

Image: PLA soldiers in the Shenyang Province. Wikimedia Commons.

The Philippines, Japan and South Korea have checked Beijing’s power.

Forget April—July has shaped up to be the cruellest month in recent memory for the Chinese leadership.

Beijing is faced with a trifecta of problems. Most gut-wrenchingly, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration handed down the decision in Philippines v. China that ruled against Beijing, removing any legal basis for China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. As a follow-up punch, South Korea agreed to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a United States Army anti-ballistic missile system with radar penetration that weakens China’s offensive missile capabilities. Lastly, and surely agitating historical wounds, Japanese national elections gave Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and their allies a supermajority in parliament, opening the door for Japan to expand their military capabilities.

How China chooses to weather the storm will have implications for China’s role in tomorrow’s world.

The events of July pose a threat to the reputation and legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, and with the economic situation at home undermining that power base, strategic losses are a bitter pill to swallow. But, despite a Chinese leadership that seems to have a winner-take-all mentality and realist perception of global politics, Beijing must realize that it is not these events alone that will dictate China’s reputation on the international stage. Instead, it will be what comes next—which narrative China chooses when viewing these outcomes, and how reputation can be safeguarded as China plans to move forward.

Narrative One: Recent Outcomes Are a Result of Chinese Behavior

The first narrative is that Beijing would view their recent behavior as the explanatory variable that has led the series of unfavorable reactions in the region. First, they would see their assertive behavior in the South China Sea as provoking its neighbors to move against Beijing; both militarily and legally. The nine-dash line, island building, the physical blocking of Filipino fishermen, and extensive environmental damage would be viewed as leaving China’s weaker neighbors with virtually no options. Evidenced by years of Manila’s attempts at negotiations with Beijing, China has essentially pushed the Philippines into The Hague. Further, China’s closed-fist diplomacy that leaves much to be desired has pushed Asian nations (both traditional U.S. allies and non-allies) to engage with the United States. The experience would serve as learning lesson for Beijing—that accommodation can not be achieved by force alone, and that smart power matters.

The much-feared deployment of THAAD on the Korean Peninsula would be viewed as the inevitable choice for Seoul to defend its citizens in the face of Beijing’s inability to “get tough” with North Korea, despite recent sanctions that have limited Pyongyang’s capabilities. South Korea’s interest in THAAD, beginning in 2013, gave Beijing a three-year window to calm Seoul’s nerves over North Korean provocations. Instead, Beijing continued to pursue their “double relationship,” most recently evidenced by North Korea’s senior envoy and former foreign minister, Ri Su-yong, being granted a private meeting with Xi Jinping. This meeting came on the heels of North Korean ballistic missile launches and an explicit message that the country would not halt their production of nuclear arms. The takeaway for Beijing is as clear as North Korea’s commitment to proliferation: support for Pyongyang can not coexist with a healthy relationship with Seoul.