Why China Can't Be Trusted

China's pledges of a peaceful rise are contradicted by its actions.

At height of the Sino-Philippine standoff in the waters off the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, Beijing and Manila, through Washington’s mediation, agreed to diffuse tension by mutually withdrawing their ships in the area until a long-term deal is reached. Manila complied. Beijing did not. Since then, Chinese government vessels have been become permanent fixtures in the shoal, some 124 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine-island of Luzon and some 550 nautical miles from the nearest Chinese landmass, Hainan Island. In short, Beijing tricked both Manila and Washington, adjusting the status quo to its favor.

Beijing followed a similar pattern of strategic double speak during Premier Li Keqiang’s first visit to India in May 2013. During the trip, Li  said, “we both believe that as two ancient civilizations, China and India have the wisdom to find a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution. Before the boundary question is resolved, we will improve the relevant mechanisms on border affairs and increase their efficiency, properly manage differences, and jointly maintain peace and tranquility in the border areas.” However, it was soon discovered that a Chinese battalion had pitched tents in Depsung Valley along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the western section of the India-China border, an area under Delhi’s control per the status quo. These events repeated themselves when President Xi Jinping visited India the following year.

Likewise, in October 2013, the Chinese premier visited Vietnam to meet his counterpart, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. The two leaders pledged to “to exercise tight control of maritime disputes and not to make any move that can further complicate or expand disputes.” Yet, by May 2014, barely seven months since issuing this statement, Beijing’s state-owned China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) deployed its billion-dollar exploratory oil rig, Haiyang Shiyou 981 (HD-981), into waters within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. State media outlet Xinhua quoted CNOOC Chairman Wang Yilin as saying, “large deep-water drilling rigs are our mobile national territory and strategic weapon…”

These are just a few examples. However one describes such behavior—talk-and-take policy, creeping assertiveness, creeping invasion, or strategic double-speak—these cases all demonstrate one thing: there exists a persistent disconnect between China’s words and actions in many of its engagements with its neighbors. Each time Beijing is verbally confronted with this inconvenient fact, its answer is a blanket “indisputable sovereignty” claim over disputed areas. Instead of looking at how Chinese actions have worsened the region’s security environment, it resorts to blaming other countries.

Consistent with its “peaceful rise” refrain, China verbally portrays itself as a benevolent power with innocuous intentions. Perhaps most significantly, Beijing is pushing for a new type of major power relations with Washington. Recently, President Xi Jinping also declared that his country is “ready to work with the Japanese side to advance neighborly friendship and cooperation.” In the years ahead, more flowery words are likely to emanate from China and its leaders. However, with China’s actions constantly contradicting its diplomatic overtures, either instantaneously or belatedly, the world can no longer afford to take Beijing’s words at face value.

Jeffrey Ordaniel is a PhD Candidate at the Security and International Studies Program of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, Tokyo. He is a Young Leaders Program Fellow of the Hawaii-based Pacific Forum-Center for Strategic and International Studies (PF-CSIS).

Image: Flickr/Defence Images