Rising powers tend to be cocky and pushy. They believe their time has arrived and they want their just deserts—now. So it is with China.
Alas, there’s a downside, which Beijing has discovered. Rising powers don’t make many friends.
If you listen to the debate on the U.S. presidential campaign trail—not recommended for the faint-hearted!—you’d think America was a helpless Third World state, besieged by enemies deploying vast armies and armadas. The truth is, the United States dominates the globe. Among its advantages is being allied with every major industrialized state, save China and Russia, and is friendly with many other states as well.
The latter point underscores America’s extraordinary global reach. There are many reasons Washington has so much international clout. Much of this has is because U.S. policy has emphasized making friends and acquiring allies.
There are downsides to this approach. Nevertheless, overall the United States is stronger because it has a cooperative relationship with so many other countries.
In contrast, let's look at the international response to Beijing’s so-called peaceful rise.
The People’s Republic of China is essentially friendless. Its one ally of sorts, North Korea, is a frenemy at best.
China has a solid relationship with Pakistan, though that offers only modest benefits, given the latter’s weakness and the PRC’s lack of nearby military operations requiring support. The South Korea has become disillusioned by China’s unwillingness to do more to punish the North.
Until recently, Beijing was close to Burma--too close, it seems. One reason the latter’s military stepped into the background and welcomed the relaxation of Western sanctions was to gain breathing room.
China recently moved closer to Thailand, but mostly as a result of Bangkok’s estrangement from Washington over the Thai military’s seizure of power. The PRC is far from forging a long-term, enduring relationship. Beyond Asia, China has gained clout because of its economic prowess, but “winning” in such pariah states as Sudan and Zimbabwe is a dubious accomplishment. In Zambia, perceived Chinese arrogance became a political issue.
While the PRC has made economic and political gains elsewhere in Africa, they remain limited. During the Cold War, Washington made a substantial investment in many of the same nations, with little lasting benefit.
Beijing’s most important relationship may be with Russia. But the two nations are, at most, “strategic partners” and only because the United States foolishly pushed them together. Once the West’s sanctions end, Moscow is likely to shift its gaze again.
As I pointed out on China-US Focus, “while China can count on few friends, it has accumulated numerous adversaries. Japan is arming itself. The Philippines is pushing for a closer military relationship with Washington. Even Vietnam, which fought a long war against America with the PRC’s support, is looking toward the U.S. for aid against China.”
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has confronted China over illegal fishing. Malaysia’s defense minister talked of “pushback” by Southeast Asian states against the PRC. Australia has grown increasingly wary of Beijing despite strong bilateral economic ties. India’s relationship with the PRC remains strained because of a territorial conflict running back a half century.
This is an appalling record for Beijing. China’s behavior would make U.S.-style alliances difficult for any nation.
The PRC is not an attractive partner for countries which matter. Although Chinese officials complain that the United States is embarked on a policy of “containment,” Beijing is doing much to contain itself.
Given its international ambitions, the PRC needs friends if not formal military allies. But China already is discovering that money does not guarantee love.
If Beijing wants to compete with America globally, the former must follow Washington’s lead and build a network of mutually cooperative states. Until now, however, the PRC has been pushing countries away.
China’s obnoxious behavior looks likely to continue. If Beijing can’t find a way to win favor from at least some of its neighbors and other influential nations around the globe, it may remain a modest geopolitical player.