While the conflict in Ukraine is still on-going and with Gaza falling now under firing and bomb shelling exchanges between Hamas and Israel, China’s security concerns are also rising, particularly to its east out there in the Pacific Ocean where challenges are on the increase. There are still no signs of de-escalation of tension between the US and China with disagreements over such issues including the Taiwan problem, the maritime disputes China has with countries like the Philippines, and the sliding down of China’s relations with Japan and South Korea. Behind all of these issues, China sees the visible and invisible hand of the US.
The repeated statements of China on its position towards seeking a peaceful return of Taiwan to the motherland have met with open resentment by the US which has rallied up the supporting response among its allies such as Canada and some European countries. By selling and sending weapons to the island and patting on the shoulders of the regime in Taiwan, the White House continues to play with its “strategic ambiguity” when it still claims that the US “does not support Taiwan’s independence”. China seems to have exhausted its patience in continuing to play the game with the US by laying its cards clear on the table.
The bad news for China is that the US doesn’t stop just there. With the benefit of having its military bases in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, as well as its “military trainers” in Taiwan, all aiming at containing “China’s potential invasion of Taiwan”, the US hopes that China would have been succumbed by the intimidation. Until recently, even countries such as Japan and Australia have joined the American rally to warn China not to take Taiwan by force.
But current events have proven to be different. More and more reports show that American and Canadian naval ships travelling across the Taiwan Straits have now constantly met with Chinese coastal guard vessels to have been closely watching over their “freedom of navigation”. Chinese fighters are also reported to have followed the provocative flying of US marine aircrafts close to China’s coastlines on numerous occasions, warning the latter to keep away from China’s airspace.
Since “Bong Bong” Marcos became the president in the Philippines, the country’s foreign policy is seen to have deviated towards relying more on the US for “protection” by opening up additional military bases to house American troops onshore. The resulting effect has been manifested in the recent exchanges of accusations between China and the Philippines over a collision in disputed waters of the South China Sea with Chinese vessels blamed for blocking Philippine boats supplying forces in a series of maritime confrontations. China’s statements in response are obviously different.
Up north in the Pacific, China’s joint military exercises with Russia and their routine patrols seem to have sent out a clear signal and have successfully and strategically contained the otherwise growing ambitions of Japan and sometimes South Korea as well, at least for now. But further down in South Pacific, China’s initiatives to engage the island countries there in recent years have alerted the US of China’s growing influence in the region to the extent that the White House even decided to host a US — Pacific Island Country Summit in late September this year.
Since this region has historically been perceived by the US as not being a priority, the motives of the US are being questioned. China, on the other hand, has been treating these island countries as development partners and hence countries like the Solomon Islands and Niue Island did not even show up in Washington. Data released by the Lowy Institute showed that China provided close to $1.5 billion in foreign aid to the Pacific Islands region in grants and loans between 2006 and 2017.
Among China’s achievements to dismantle the US effort in circling up China by boasting the military bases over and across its traditional allies, the recent forming of AUKUS, and even the expressed expansion of NATO to the Pacific region, China has successfully convinced most of its neighbours in the region of its peaceful rise by having become the largest trading partner of ASEAN countries. Moreover, China’s ratification of RCEP has pronounced this Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to be the world’s largest trading zone in volume by agreement since January 2022, bringing in together Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and China under one roof.
It goes without saying that, for China, trade and economic cooperation has always been its non-secret weapon to dissolve or melt down the defiance or aggregated attempt to alienate or demonise China by the US. In all fairness, it is right to conclude that almost all of the challenges China is facing in the Pacific can find their root causes in the fear of the US losing its dominance in the region, and thereby its hegemony all over the world.
One may argue that China’s restraint and non-confrontational nature in its handling of foreign relations, a reflection of the Chinese culture rather, seems unfamiliar to most Western countries including the US that are more accustomed to an outright row on matters they don’t agree with. What is unexpected to China, however, is the often and consequent response by some of the Asian countries to the US rhetoric and accusations of the so-called “China Threat”.
To the average Chinese, these Asian countries, sharing similar cultural backgrounds, are supposed to understand the non-interfering and trade oriented nature of China’s expanding engagement in the Asia Pacific region, are either overly opportunistic or are pretending to be someone they are not. Whatever the reasons, improper handling of relations with or the negligence of these Asian countries will become additional challenges for China going forward.
Although many countries in the Asia Pacific region have openly said that they do not want to take a side in the geopolitical conflict between the big powers, the traditional influence of the US in the Pacific region is never to be underestimated. Singapore’s seemingly impartial but utterly clear position to side with the US is a typical example and a wakeup call for China that, although feeling disappointed, has quickly matured up to realise the pragmatism of countries like Singapore and others in the region.
That said, solving the Taiwan problem remains on top of the agenda for China under all circumstances. As the only country among the Big Five of the UN Security Council’s Standing Committee that still has a pending territorial integrity issue, China does expect the whole world to understand its resolve to unite with Taiwan under the One China umbrella, with its last resort being by force. By repeatedly pronouncing this as the country’s core national interest and top priority, this message has been voiced out loud and clear by China’s top diplomat during his recent visit to Washington and most recently in the open remarks by Chinese generals at the Shangshan Forum in Beijing.
Recently, the Chinese President Xi Jinping met with the US President Joe Biden during the APEC summit in San Francisco. But it is way too early to predict that US-China relations will thus warmed up any time soon. While the perception of China being the long term challenge to the US is hard to change among America’s “deep state”, the best that can be hoped for is for both countries to prevent their competition from developing into an open confrontation on any front in the foreseeable future.