China will welcome South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, to Beijing this week in what could be a significant warming of a frosty relationship since Moon’s predecessor agreed in 2016 to deploy American missile defences. This visit will be analysed in terms of what it says about Seoul’s ability to manoeuvre between the competing ambitions of China and the United States and to manage the rising nuclear threat from North Korea. But we will do well to broaden our gaze beyond the already tense strategic competition over the Korean peninsula and examine how this visit fits into China’s overall foreign policy.
First, the trip to Beijing is a real test for Moon. His impeached predecessor, Park Guen-hye, had bet heavily on her relationship with China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to manage the threat from North Korea, only to be embarrassed when Xi refused to take her phone calls after an important North Korean nuclear test. When Park decided to accept the American offer to bolster missile defences with deployment of a THAAD anti-missile system, Beijing construed the development as affecting its security and launched an unannounced but effective boycott of South Korean trade and tourism. To pour salt into the wound, Seoul desperately needs to hold a successful Winter Olympics in February, and China’s acquiescence is key to filling the seats. For its part, the US has added to Moon’s discomfort by simultaneously pressing the left-leaning leader to accommodate Washington’s decidedly more bellicose reaction to the North’s nuclear and missile development while demanding the renegotiation of the Korea-US free trade agreement, which had already been negotiated twice before with the Bush and Obama administrations. To use a Korean metaphor, Moon is a shrimp among whales, and a happy ending is difficult to predict.
China’s Xi, by contrast, is in a stronger position, newly emerged from his coronation at the 19th Communist Party congress, presiding over a strong economy with new global ambitions and a reforming and strengthening military. Xi has managed a reasonably warm relationship with President Donald Trump, despite numerous economic and strategic tensions, and frozen out North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, while agreeing to unprecedented sanctions against his regime.
So how does this all fit into China’s broader vision? Earlier this year, a number of my Chinese contacts urged me to watch China’s foreign policy in the aftermath of the 19th party congress. They argued that Xi would launch a charm offensive around China’s periphery.
Xi has tried this before. In 2013, a year after taking the leadership, he summoned the country’s top diplomats for a conference on China’s foreign policy towards its periphery. It was purportedly to correct the mistakes in China’s foreign policy behaviour after 2008. From the time of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Chinese foreign policy appeared increasingly benign and beneficial to its neighbours. Diplomats were skilful and the economic opportunity was burgeoning.
But with the Olympics and concurrent global financial crisis, hubris seemed to consume many in China. The US was widely viewed as in decline.
Beijing behaved haughtily. Arguments erupted in virtually all directions around China: with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, with Vietnam in the South China Sea, with India on their disputed border, with Myanmar over corrupt Chinese investment, and so on.
The October 2013 work conference was intended to refocus Chinese diplomacy and resources on improving China’s relationships with its neighbours. The objective was realistic, in the sense that China knew it would not turn its neighbours into allies. Rather, the goal was to deny the US, Japan, and possibly India, the capacity to forge a coalition with China’s neighbours to counterbalance growing Chinese power and influence. By offering trade and infrastructure (the “Belt and Road Initiative”) and restraining conflicts, Beijing could pre-empt any such effort.
Xi’s early ambitions fell apart. The belt and road failed to materialise beyond being a slogan. Xi oversaw the declaration of an unanticipated and unwelcome air defence identification zone over the East China Sea. He waged hybrid warfare in the South China Sea, laying claim to a vast area of the sea within a nine-dash line, but that claim was declared illegal by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
Now, it appears Xi wants to start his charm offensive again. The strategic goal of preventing a coalition of anti-China neighbours remains unchanged. His motivation has probably been enhanced by Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, now largely judged to have been an unsuccessful challenge to China’s rise, and by Trump’s new “Indo-Pacific strategy”, which is clearly intended to compete with China, though it remains mostly unarticulated. The Trump administration’s national security strategy is expected to be unveiled in the coming days.
The early evidence for this Chinese charm offensive is rather compelling. Within days of the completion of the 19th party congress, Beijing announced a new agreement and mechanism with Hanoi to manage their disputes in the South China Sea.
Agreement was also reached between the Chinese and South Korean foreign ministers to limit THAAD deployments in exchange for normalising relations. Meanwhile, Tokyo and Beijing also revealed intentions for Xi to make a state visit next year to Japan, and agreed to a long-delayed mechanism to manage tensions in the East China Sea.
Lastly, the belt and road is being jolted into action on many fronts. Rhetorically, Xi is seizing the opportunity presented by Trump to champion the international system.
The US has not been completely idle. The Trump administration recognised early on that Obama’s strategy towards Southeast Asia had let smaller obstacles interfere with larger objectives in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. White House efforts to re-engage these nations’ leaders with presidential meetings appear deeply appreciated, if as yet unsubstantial. But the US remains hamstrung with its rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, unfilled policy positions, populist disdain for the international order and failure to escape deep and costly entanglement in the Middle East.
Being the self-referential behemoth that it is, China could fail again with the latest charm offensive. The issues that have infected China’s relations with its neighbours for decades will not disappear. It will behove observers to watch how China manages those issues and disputes, as well as how Washington, Tokyo, and perhaps New Delhi provide leadership and resources to counter or exploit Beijing’s blandishments.