Beijing's foreign policy increasingly tone deaf

Gone are the days of naive engagement meant to democratize China in the long-run
Beijing's foreign policy increasingly tone deaf

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Message to Compatriots in Taiwan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Jan. 2. Taiwan's unification with the mainland is "inevitable", Xi said while warning against any effort to promote the island's independence. He said China would not renounce the option of military force to bring it into the fold. (Photo by Mark Schiefelbein/AFP)

Anders Corr
January 7, 2019
Beijing's aggressive foreign policy, led by President Xi Jinping, is increasingly tone deaf to a growing wave of global public opinion against China that is forcing politicians in democracies to make choices to either resist China, or submit and face suspicions of having come under Beijing's influence.

In places as diverse as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Pakistan, Canada, and the U.S, China's policies are leading constituencies that previously exhibited little concern over China's behavior, into linking with other like-minded people and organizations to consider ways to slow the growth of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) power, and to stop local elites who serve the interests of Beijing.

Most China observers think Xi is thereby making major strategic blunders. Is it because, surrounded by yes men in his status as China's new dictator, he is unaware of the pitfalls into which he leads his country?

Taiwan doesn't want to be Hong Kong

On Jan. 2, Xi gave a speech in which he all but threatened to invade Taiwan militarily if the independent democratic country did not voluntarily accede to his demands to join China through an arrangement similar to that of Hong Kong.

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China reneged on promises it made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 to respect Hong Kong's core freedoms with "one country, two systems". As the city's freedoms are gradually eroded, there are now demonstrators in the streets of Hong Kong calling for independence from China.

The response from Hong Kong authorities, increasingly beholden to Beijing, is to suppress the dissent. Taiwanese politicians don't want to go down that Hong Kong path.

In his speech on Taiwan, Xi essentially said it should follow the Hong Kong model, or else.

"We are willing to create broad space for peaceful reunification, but will leave no room for any form of separatist activities," Xi said. "We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means."

The response from Taiwanese politicians, including those from the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang party, was cold. They issued a statement against the idea of one country, two systems.

Seventy percent of the Taiwanese population rejects the concept of one China, according to an October poll by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs.

A group of Indonesian Muslim protesters stomp on photos of Chinese President Xi Jinping at a demonstration in Medan on Dec. 21, 2018, against the detention of Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang region. (Photo by Rahmad Suryadi/AFP)


Pakistan's Xinjiang denials

In Pakistan, up to 200 Muslim men are seeking information on their wives in China who have been detained. Many feel that they were detained as part of Xi's detention of approximately 1 million Muslims, according to a U.N. panel, based on their faith alone.

In China's historically Muslim Xinjiang region, the CCP detains Turkic Muslims in "reeducation centers" that some international observers are calling concentration camps.

The human drama of detained wives in China has gotten increasing media attention in Pakistan. But the Pakistani government, influenced by China, is trying to argue China's side rather than standing up for its own citizens and detained coreligionists in Xinjiang.

On Dec. 20, the spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, Mohammad Faisal, said, "Some section of foreign media are trying to sensationalise the matter by spreading false information. As per Chinese authorities, out of 44 women, six are already in Pakistan. Four have been convicted on various charges, three are under investigations, eight are undergoing voluntary training. Twenty-three women are free and living in Xinjiang of their own free will."

Pakistan's denial of the problem is likely due to the country's increasing commerce with China, which is executing a US $75 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as part of its trillion-dollar One Belt, One Road global infrastructure project.

China has fueled the project in Pakistan with opaque agreements and Pakistani debt that pays Chinese companies and workers rather than Pakistanis, takes land from local communities, and has led to claims of Chinese colonialism and naval utilization of a port in Gwadar, in the southwest of the country near Iran.  

Canadians singled out

In Canada, concern is growing over 13 Canadians who Chinese authorities detained since the arrest of Huawei's CFO, Meng Wanzhou, on U.S. charges of violating Iran sanctions. Eight were since released. A total of 200 are in some form of legal proceedings in China, most out on bail.

Some level of such legal trouble is routine, but at least in the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, there are suspicions that the Chinese detentions are a form of CCP hostage-taking designed to strong-arm Canada into returning Meng, and even to erode hard-won global norms of international law and diplomacy that proscribe retaliation against normal citizens when state-to-state relations deteriorate.

Canada's Tory foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole has concerns that China singles out Canadians for not just increased detentions, but "administrative harassment" as retaliation for the Meng case. Despite these problems, the Canadian government is having a hard time issuing a new travel warning about China. That suggests that China's influence in Canada is interfering with the North American nation's duty to protect its own citizens.

Chinese police stand guard outside the Canadian embassy in Beijing on Dec. 10, 2018. (Photo by Greg Baker/AFP)


In the U.S., voters have finally gotten politicians to not only confront Beijing during elections, but to increase resistance to China's unfair trade and technology theft through hard-hitting tariffs and negotiations. Those with favorable views of China dropped from 44 to 38 percent in the U.S. between 2017 and 2018 according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Gone are the days of naive engagement meant to democratize China in the long-run. A bipartisan core of Republican and Democratic congressional leaders now see China as a global competitor and are seeking to end Chinese political and media influence, and to remove U.S. economic dependency of Chinese supply chains. International agreements with China are being resisted unless they yield relative benefits for the U.S., and demonstrate Chinese progress on issues of its expansive territorial claims, democratization and human rights.

These types of issues of Chinese influence, belligerence, and pushback from regular citizens and legislators affect most democratic countries in the world.

Unhappy Chinese

According to one of my Chinese friends, there is a belief among many Chinese that Xi's foreign policies have bitten off more than China can chew.

Even for many of those who agree with CCP goals of making China into a global superpower, Xi's strategies, and perhaps the man himself, are seen as not too bright. Rumors among Chinese elites are that Xi did not attend high school and only got into a prestigious university because of his father's high rank in the CCP. That may or may not be true.

I don't know Xi, and I don't know his level of intelligence. But the fact that Chinese citizens themselves are increasingly complaining about his harsh foreign policies could mean that there are influential elements in China that could seek to have him removed. Time will tell.


Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University, and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian. He frequently appears in the media, including Bloomberg, 'Financial Times,' 'New York Times' and 'Forbes'.

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