The new leaders of the Chinese Communist Party may have moved into office, but so far their new policies have not. Yet if these men at the top—led by party General Secretary Xi Jinping—are to resolve a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, they must move quickly to prevent bad situations from growing worse, thus aggravating troubles their predecessors have passed along unsolved.
And no issues may be more pressing than those of foreign policy, where current Chinese actions often are incoherent, contradictory and all too possibly dangerous to themselves and the region. The reasons are many, but they include the lack of an overall strategy for achieving broad but ill-defined goals and a governing system that is poorly suited to making coordinated decisions.
Deep-seated suspicions about other nations’ intentions add to the problem, for the legacy of Chinese history and Leninist ideology often makes Beijing officials believe they are being victimized by foreign conspiracies that don’t really exist. This is especially true today as the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward Asia feeds into that Chinese insecurity; many Chinese contend America is trying to “contain” them. In reality, Washington’s purposes are much more complex and nuanced, but that belief makes choosing rational policies more difficult for Beijing than it need be.
Future relations will rely largely upon Xi’s political will and the strength of his mandate, which remain unknown. In March the party secretary will also gain the lesser post of president and the party’s number two man, Li Keqiang (his former rival for the top spot), will become premier. Much depends upon how they and the other five members of party Politburo’s standing committee divide oversight of policy sectors among themselves, and upon the government ministers they choose. It’s assumed, though, that Xi—who has considerable foreign experience—will supervise overseas relations no matter who becomes foreign minister.
Xi might well begin in his own neighborhood. For many years China’s top policy goals have been stability at home and peace in the region; these are essential if the economy is to keep expanding and domestic unrest is to be avoided. Yet China has been drifting toward violent and dangerous showdowns with Japan and other nearby nations, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, over ownership of rocky islets and the seas around them. This drift seems driven more by nationalistic hubris than calculated strategy, and feeds rival nationalisms in the other concerned countries that could spiral out of control at any time. If that happened, those long-term Chinese goals of peace and stability would be seriously subverted.
Consider the small cluster of islands between China and Japan, known as the Diaoyus to Beijing and the Senkakus to Tokyo. Largely ignored throughout history, today both countries assert rival if debatable ownership claims to their fisheries and potential undersea oil riches. Japan has controlled them since World War II while the United States, though asserting neutrality on the sovereignty question, insists they will remain covered by the U.S.-Japan defense treaty until the two sides agree on ownership. In theory, however unlikely, this could lead to American attacks on Chinese gunboats if Beijing tries to seize the isles by force—a situation so dangerous that no one in Washington wants to contemplate it.
Yet the trend is toward violence. Beijing has sent patrol craft near the islands, where they sometimes scuffle with Japanese ships. When Chinese planes flew over the islands recently, Tokyo scrambled eight fighter jets. Japan’s newly elected hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has promised even stronger responses to any future Chinese actions and says he may post government bureaucrats to these uninhabited islands to strengthen Tokyo’s claim; Beijing promises it won’t let that happen. More broadly, Abe wants to revise the Japanese constitution to allow construction of a more assertive military force, something China strongly opposes. All this happens while chauvinistic impulses in both nations—in part fed by political leaders seeking mass support—make it increasingly difficult for either side to seek compromise.
Abe did nothing to calm the controversy after winning the election. The islands are "Japan's inherent territory", he insisted, adding "There is no room for negotation on this point."
If Beijing’s claim to the Daioyus/Senkakus is debatable, its similar claims over most of the South China Sea and its various islets, specks of land far from Chinese shores, seem absurd by generally accepted (though not by China) international rules. However, a similar desire to control fisheries, oil and gas resources has fed Beijing’s nationalistic, bullying tactics against smaller rivals. Chinese craft have confronted those of Manila near islands close to the Philippines, while others have cut cables of Vietnamese boats exploring for oil near islands claimed by Hanoi. Beijing also has related territorial disputes with Brunei and Malaysia. Most recently, China’s Hainan Province asserted that its police vessels have the right to board any foreign ship that enters disputed waters, adding another dash of danger.