Chinese President Xi Jinping has been outspoken lately, taking advantage of the leadership vacuum in Washington where Donald Trump is still sulking after his election defeat and Joe Biden won’t take office for seven more weeks.
Addressing the Group of 20 (G20) virtual summit in Riyadh on Nov 21 — Mr Trump also made a brief and unenthusiastic appearance — Mr Xi urged members to uphold free trade and oppose unilateralism and protectionism. The Chinese president also called for from major economies to promote more inclusive development and improve global governance in the post-pandemic era.
“We should keep our support for developing countries and help them overcome the hardships caused by the pandemic,” he said, noting that China had made its full commitment of US$1.3 billion to a G20 debt service suspension initiative despite its own economic difficulties.
A day earlier, Mr Xi made headlines at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) virtual summit hosted by Malaysia, where he said the world’s second-biggest economy would “give positive consideration” to the idea of taking part in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
A senior Chinese Foreign Ministry official later confirmed that a possible expansion of membership would “probably be on the agenda” among the 11 existing members of the pact formerly known as Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), from which Mr Trump withdrew in early 2017.
Chinese diplomacy in the rest of Asia has also been strengthened with an in-person visit by Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week to Japan and South Korea, which are key US allies in the region. Mr Wang was the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Japan since the pandemic began.
In Seoul, Mr Wang laid the groundwork for an upcoming visit planned by Mr Xi, saying China and South Korea were “strategic partners” in defending regional peace and stability and promoting global governance. He and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, also pledged to work on tackling challenges including the pandemic and stalled nuclear talks involving North Korea.
The mood in Tokyo earlier was less upbeat, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed concern about Beijing’s attempts to undermine Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by Beijing. The Japanese leader also raised concerns about the future of Hong Kong under the tough national security law imposed by Beijing.
America has not been silent in the region, however. Mr Trump’s national security adviser also visited the region last week, as the US, Japan, India and Australia have stepped up activities in a grouping known as the Quad, which is seen as countering Chinese expansionism.
Last Monday, Robert O’Brien assured the Philippines and Vietnam, both locked in maritime rows with China, that Washington would fight to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open.
“Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving,” Mr O’Brien said.
Washington has long opposed Beijing’s expansive claims, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to assert freedom of navigation. China, meanwhile, has maintained it is a force for peace in the region, citing the US presence as provocative and interference by an outsider.
“I think when we send that message — that peace-through-strength message — is the way to deter China. It is a way to ensure the peace,” Mr O’Brien stressed. He also warned China it would face a “backlash” if it attempted to use military force to coerce Taiwan into the mainland fold.
That drew a complaint from the Chinese embassy in the Philippines that the US is “creating chaos” in Asia. “It shows that his visit to this region is not to promote regional peace and stability, but to create chaos in the region in order to seek selfish interests of the US,” the embassy said in a statement.
The US should “stop inciting confrontation” in the South China Sea and “stop making irresponsible remarks on the Taiwan and Hong Kong issue, which are purely China’s internal affairs”, the statement added.
While there is a certain entertainment value in watching the world’s two largest economies flex their muscles in Asia, I would prefer to see China be less vocal and make less hostile approaches to its Asian neighbours.
As China is powerful already economically and politically, and we speak similar languages, soft and strategic diplomacy should be the way forward for Beijing. That way, its calls for more international cooperation and its billions of dollars spent on debt suspension would be appreciated more than ever.