China is the enemy of the world and has nobody to blame but itself

China has made many enemies in recent years
China has made many enemies in recent years - Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s multi-day trip to China this week caps a particularly busy stretch of meetings between US and Chinese officials. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was in Beijing earlier this month where she delivered remarks about establishing a floor underneath the US-China relationship and was photographed drinking a beer at a local brewery. On April 5, US and Chinese defence officials held maritime talks for the first time in three years. And on April 16, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to his Chinese colleague, Admiral Dong Jun, for the first time since the latter was appointed.

Yet all isn’t well. Chinese coast guard ships and maritime militia have harassed Philippine vessels trying to reinforce their sailors on the Second Thomas Shoal, which Beijing and Manila both claim. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force continues to fly across the Taiwan Strait median-line on a regular basis. The China-India border dispute in the Himalayas, meanwhile, remains unsolved four years after troops clashed in the area.

China, of course, likes to present itself as the innocent victim in all of this. If there is anybody to blame for misinterpretations or misperceptions, Chinese officials say, it’s the other side. Listen or read a transcript of a Chinese foreign ministry briefing and you’ll get the same, tired line: the US should stop instigating a Cold War-like mentality, the Philippines should stop causing unnecessary tension and Japan should be careful lest it turn into an American lacky.

In reality, it’s China that should be looking in the mirror. Yes, the Biden administration is making a concerted effort to bring its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific together, in large measure to balance China’s growing power. But ultimately China’s desire to become Asia’s biggest power player is forcing its smaller neighbours to boost their own defence capabilities, spend more on their military budgets and expand security and economic partnerships with each other. China, not Washington, is the glue that holds all of this together.

None of this is a surprise – or at least shouldn’t be. History is full of cases where aspiring hegemons scare their neighbours into action. Just as powerful states don’t like to see hostile alliances encroaching on their spheres of influence, less powerful states don’t like to see large states threatening or even subjugating their own interests. The old saying uttered by Thucydides, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” is only partly true. The weak, or at least weaker, have agency as well. And more often than not, that means increasing ties with states that have similar threat perceptions.

This is precisely what we’re seeing in Asia today. Japan, a country traditionally weary of militarism given its history, is now at the forefront of what can be viewed as a balancing coalition against China. Its constitution, imposed by the Americans after Imperial Japan’s defeat in World War II, has been reinterpreted in order to give Tokyo a more proactive role in the region’s security. Last December, Japan approved its largest ever defence budget at nearly $56 billion, with that number set to rise to $63 billion in 2027. The Japanese are also purchasing the kinds of equipment and military platforms, like medium-range surface-to-surface missiles, that could hold Chinese and North Korean targets at risk in the event of a conflict.

The Philippines is undergoing a similar transformation, albeit at a slower pace and with softer numbers. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has ditched his predecessor’s pro-China policies and doubled down on Manila’s seven decade-old defence alliance with Washington. Eying China and its expansive claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines plans to spend $35 billion over the next decade to strengthen its navy.

In 2023, Marcos agreed to give US troops access to four more military bases in the Philippines. The Filipinos are also conducting military exercises at a greater frequency, not only bilaterally with the US but multilaterally with the US, Australia and Japan. This month’s trilateral summit at the White House between US President Biden, President Marcos and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida likely wouldn’t have occurred if regional concern about China’s rise wasn’t so prevalent among all three.

China’s weight is being felt outside the immediate confines of East Asia as well. India, the biggest power in South Asia, increasingly sees Beijing less as a friend and trading partner and more as a rival seeking to undermine its influence in the Indian Ocean region. Chinese attempts to change the India-China border unilaterally and the inability of Beijing and New Delhi to come to a diplomatic agreement on the matter appear to have woken up the Indian foreign policy establishment. There are no more illusions about Chinese motives.

Ditto Australia, which in the not-so-distant past actually trumpeted a strong bilateral relationship with Beijing. That came to an end when allegations of Chinese spying and influence peddling in Australian politics emerged and when China adopted tariffs on Australian wine and coal in retaliation for Canberra’s calls for an inquiry into the Covid-19 pandemic. Australian policymakers are talking about peace and tranquility in the Taiwan Strait far more often than they were in years past. The Aussies are also putting their money where their mouth is: this month, the Australian Defence Ministry stated that $491 billion would be spent on defence over the next decade.

Chinese president Xi Jinping and his mouthpieces across the Chinese Communist Party obviously don’t like any of these developments. If they were honest with themselves, they would look in the mirror.