In 2010, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a gathering of Asian countries that the United States “has a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea.”
To China, those were fighting words. But surprisingly, no country came to its defense. Instead, 12 of China’s neighbors issued statements in support of Clinton’s position. Incensed, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi declared “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”
According to the Financial Times’s Geoff Dyer: “In less than half an hour, Yang managed to tear up more than a decade of subtle, diligent and highly effective Chinese diplomacy.”
It’s just one example among many of a simple fact: China has few acquaintances and fewer friends. The country’s isolation is evident again in advance of this week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. As The Washington Post reported:
In Still Ours to Lead, Brookings scholar Bruce Jones notes that the United States “has more than 50 allies — over a quarter of the world’s states.” China’s “strategic allies,” however, “are few and far between.” What accounts for that gap?
Especially in light of the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, China has come to see America’s network of alliances in the region as an instrument for constricting its rise.
To that end, China has established economic partnerships across the world — extending loans and building infrastructure in exchange for vital commodities — paying little attention to the nature of the governments with which it is interacting. There is a significant gap, however, between business arrangements and durable alliances: The latter require at least some semblance of shared values and alignment of strategic imperatives.
Any rise of such magnitude is bound to arouse anxiety, especially when it occurs in the putative successor to the world’s superpower.
While China has been advocating a new regional security architecture that would diminish the salience of America’s alliances in the Asia-Pacific, it does not appear to have reconsidered substantially its basic posture on alliance formation.
But as Yan Xuetong (author of an influential November 2011 New York Times article How China Can Defeat America) and Huang Yuxing argue in Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, “The limitations of the principle of nonalignment have already become apparent.”
China may not aspire to global preeminence. But if it aspires to strategic parity with the United States, it will have to become more proactive in forging alliances.