China’s Relations with Neighbors and the Ebb of U.S. Power

China’s Relations with Neighbors and the Ebb of U.S. Power
Remarks to Shanghai Forum / 上海论坛 2022

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Visiting Scholar, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Shanghai, China by Video from Bristol, Rhode Island, November 25, 2022

The distinguished organizers of this forum have asked me to speak about the implications of the ebb of U.S. primacy and the rise of an increasingly Sinocentric regional order for Chinese policies toward the countries of the Asia-Pacific.

Last week at the U.S. National Defense University, I addressed the question from the point of view of U.S. strategy.[1] I pointed out that China is not alone in having achieved wealth and power. So have most of its neighbors. Japan and the Republic of Korea are strong global economic and regional military powers with growing ties to other rising powers like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, as well as to countries at the region’s periphery like Australia and India. The basis for an inclusive regional balance of power exists. What has been lacking is the imagination and will to create such a balance.

I am flattered to have been asked to share my thoughts on how China can best cope with the reality of strong and prosperous neighbors with a history of alignment with the United States and a felt need to perpetuate an American presence. But I do so with some trepidation. Advocacy of change that embodies implied criticism, however constructively meant, is seldom welcome.

Many years ago, I read some remarks that Zhuangzi [莊子] made to a graduating class of what would today be called diplomats. I have provided the interpreters at this meeting with my own rough translation of the passage from classical Chinese into the vernacular. [2]  Zhuangzi said:

If relations between states are close, they may establish mutual trust through daily interactions, but if relations are distant, mutual confidence can only be established by exchanges of messages. Messages must be conveyed by messengers [diplomats]. Their contents may be either pleasing to both sides or likely to engender anger between them. Faithfully conveying such messages is the most difficult task under the heavens, for if the words are such as to evoke a positive response on both sides, there will be the temptation to exaggerate them with flattery and, if they are unpleasant, there will be a tendency to make them even more biting. In either case, the truth will be lost. If truth is lost, mutual trust will also be lost. If mutual trust is lost, the messenger himself may be imperiled. Therefore, I say to you it is a wise rule: ‘always to speak the truth and never to embellish it. In this way, you will avoid much harm to yourselves.

I am nobody’s messenger. I speak only for myself. But I will follow Zhuangzi’s advice as best I can.

American primacy in the Asia-Pacific was the inevitable consequence of the power vacuum created by the defeat of Japan’s attempt to replace European and American imperialism with its own hegemony in the region. Postwar U.S. policy sought to prevent Japan’s reemergence as a contestant for regional dominance. To this end, the United States disarmed Japan and assumed responsibility for its strategic defense.

When Pyongyang tried to unify the Korean Peninsula by force, the United States saw this as an attempt by the Sino-Soviet alliance to establish Korea as a bridgehead for an attack on Japan and perhaps beyond it. So, what began as a civil war among Koreans had lasting geopolitical consequences. These included the division of Korea into two states, the prolongation of the Chinese civil war, the denial of Taiwan Province to the CPC, and the eventual extension of American protection to all nations in the Asia-Pacific perceived to be menaced by Moscow or Beijing. The United States sought to stabilize and defend the borders that had resulted from World War II. Its protective alliances were designed to offset the political vulnerability and military weakness of the region’s post-colonial states and to bolster their socioeconomic development.

But the vulnerability and weakness of these nations is long gone, as is the Sino-Soviet alliance, CPC assistance to insurgencies in the region, and the Cultural Revolution. With only minor exceptions, borders are now well established. Japan is once again a great economic and military power. The two Koreas, though hostile to each other and very different, are each formidable. They have effectively reestablished the Korean Peninsula as a buffer between China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. The confrontations and wars that disturbed the peace of Southeast Asia ended decades ago. And, as threats to the region’s nations have diminished, their political identities, nationalisms, and self-defense capabilities have strengthened. ASEAN has emerged as the world’s fifth-largest economy in large part because of China’s opening. China is now the biggest trading and investment partner of all its neighbors.

A Chinese friend of mine of once bluntly pointed out to these neighbors, “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is a fact.” China’s return to wealth and power after so much time is something new and unsettling. Small and medium-sized countries on China’s periphery fear that their giant neighbor will use its regained wealth and power to bully them into one-sided solutions of their differences with it. They worry that Beijing will seek to dictate policy decisions they do not want to make. They are apprehensive that China will take actions that erode their territorial integrity, monopolize resources they believe to be theirs, or seek to limit their cooperation with third countries.

It is up to China to persuade its neighbors that their apprehensions are unjustified. Their concerns center on their own relationships with China, not the Taiwan issue. They know the history of that issue, understand that it is sui generis, and agree that it is up to Chinese on the two sides of the Strait to settle it. They want no part in a war to determine Taiwan’s status. It is not in China’s interest to encourage their involvement by challenging them on other issues and thereby antagonizing them. In all candor, however, some are concerned that Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland might alter the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region to their disadvantage. How China addresses that concern will affect their stance. But, quite aside from the Taiwan question, China’s neighbors are uneasy.

The fundamental question for them is whether China, having now achieved so much, is still a dissatisfied power that might threaten them. Will China be content with what it now possesses, or will it seek to seize islets, sandbars, and reefs occupied by others in the South China Sea? Does China insist on unilateral regulation of the region’s fish stocks, or is it open to arrangements for their cooperative management? Will China use the power of its market to coerce them? These are questions only Beijing can answer. How it answers them will have a decisive effect on the posture and international alignments of China’s neighbors.

If the answer to these questions is that China is determined to gain more control over its periphery than it now has, China’s neighbors will continue to seek safety in relationships with others directed at deterring and countering China. If the answer is that China now has what it basically needs for its defense and its fishermen, then Beijing needs to affirm this with initiatives to negotiate quitclaims in territorial disputes and to de-untilateralize resource management in the seas between it and its Southeast and Northeast Asian neighbors. If China’s neighbors believe that dependence on the Chinese economy means subordination to China, they will seek to wean themselves from that dependence. China needs to provide them with enforceable assurances that it will not abuse its economic power. No decision is also a decision.

In the South China Sea, there is nothing left to seize. Malaysia has what it claims. The Philippines mostly does too, despite the ambiguous situations at Second Thomas Shoal [仁爱礁] and at Scarborough Shoal [黄岩岛]. Vietnam occupies the great majority of the land features in the Spratlys [南沙群岛]. Hanoi claims still more but is in no position to annex places occupied by others. China has built seven formidable outposts. Is Vietnam ready to settle for what it has if China is? Malaysia and the Philippines appear to be. A standdown by all the claimants would be win-win for all.

Were force used to resolve competing claims in the South China Sea, this would permanently embitter relations between China and other claimants and invite persistent exploitation of tensions by outside powers. No one wants war in the South China Sea. How do China or other claimants gain by sustaining the prospect of war? Perhaps it is time for everybody there to call it quits.

There is a way to settle disputes that invite conflict from which all would lose. UTI POSSIDETIS [保持佔有] – is a principle of international law that quells controversies without conceding the legality of occupations but by ceasing to contest them. All would gain if every country kept what it now has and accepted that others would do the same regardless of its and their legal objections.

Fisheries and other resource management issues are also major sources of tension among the states that border the South and East China Seas.

This invites the question whether the littoral states could use the Bangkok-based Asia-Pacific Fishery Commission to co-manage fish stocks in the South China Sea on a multilateral basis. If not, they might think about setting up a body like the Arctic Council for this purpose. The Council has a rotating chair drawn from its members, large and small. It brings together all the claimants to territory in the Arctic region, plus observers from interested countries, to deconflict issues of nationalism, manage resource exploitation, and preserve the environment there.

Who is competent to propose such multilateral mechanisms for comparable functions in the South China Sea, if not China after consultation with other littoral states? The establishment of such a coordinating body would go a long way toward reducing frictions between China and its maritime neighbors.

This brings me to the contentious issue of how the limits of territorial seas are drawn. The traditional method is to draw wavy lines that parallel the low-water mark at the nearest points on the shore. But some coastlines are deeply indented and dotted with fringe islands. There, states have long delimited territorial seas with straight lines between the points of land that extend farthest into the sea. China adopted this convenient method to the exclusion of the more demanding traditional one in 1958.

But in 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) reserved the use of ‘straight baselines’ to deeply indented coastlines, those with fringe islands, and those of ‘archipelagic states,’ meaning states that consist entirely of islands, like Indonesia and the Philippines. China is not such a state. Despite ratifying UNCLOS, China did not change its practices to conform to the new legal standards the treaty set out.

China is far from alone in opting to ignore UNCLOS on this point. Some eighty nations, including almost all Asian nations, now use straight baselines, which have the effect of giving them larger – in some cases, extravagantly larger – territorial seas. Despite vigorous U.S. challenges through naval “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs), the number of states drawing straight baselines is growing. What is and is not permissible under UNCLOS has been controversial from the outset. It is becoming more so.

The question that China needs to ask itself is how important straight baselines are to its national interests. Are they important enough to risk incidents that could lead to war? China has a choice. It can continue to act in ways that justify foreign naval challenges by contradicting the law of the sea as defined by UNCLOS, or it can join with other parties to the treaty in amending the relevant provisions of it to disambiguate it. Resolving the conflict between law and practice by clarifying UNCLOS to the satisfaction of its member nations and applying their consensus would remove the justification for foreign challenges to China’s sea boundaries and facilitate a reduction of tensions with other sea powers.

There is no time for me to discuss the situation in the East China Sea and the apprehensions of Japan and the Republic of Korea about a resurgent China. But like the countries of Southeast Asia, they are uncertain whether China has ambitions that threaten their sovereignty and international freedom of maneuver. They are concerned that dependence on the China market will subject them to dictation from Beijing. Their uncertainty is a source of tension in China’s relations with them. They are addressing this with extra-regional alliances (like Japan’s recent link-up with Britain) and self-strengthening, as well as arms sales to China’s neighbors, and exercises to improve interoperability with them. It is in China’s interest to find ways to avoid locking in hostile relations with them by allaying their concerns.

China’s neighbors may be smaller than it, but they are serious-minded and able to make up their own minds where their interests should lead them. None of them believes that China can or should be excluded from a major role in the management of their region’s affairs. But when China appears to be positioning itself to push them around, they react badly. And when that happens, they turn to the United States and others for support.

Sino-American and Sino-European relations are driven to a considerable extent by the views of China’s neighbors, who sometimes say one thing to Chinese officials and something else to foreigners. A good-neighbor policy is therefore not only a sound regional policy for China but also an essential means of reducing tensions with both America and Europe.

[1] Refashioning the East Asian Order,

[2] 如果国家之间关系密切,他们可以通过日常互动建立互信,但如果关系疏远,互信只能通过信息交流建立。 信息必须由信使 [即外交官] 来传达。 信息的内容可能是双方都喜欢的,也可能是可能引起双方的愤怒。 忠实地传达这种信息是天下最困难的任务,因为如果这些话能引起双方的积极反应,就会有一种诱惑,即用奉承来夸大它们,如果传达的话是不愉快的,就会有一种倾向,即使它们更加尖锐。 无论是哪种情况,都会失去真相。 如果失去了真理,相互之间的信任也将失去。 如果失去了相互信任,信使自己也可能受到威胁。 因此,我对你们说,这是一条明智的规则:”永远说真话,不要美化它。 这样,你们就会避免对自己造成很多伤害。”