China’s Curious Restraint

Beijing’s behavior on the international stage over the past few months has been surprisingly restrained—in marked contrast to an earlier, lengthy period of assertive, if not abrasive, conduct toward its neighbors. Not too long ago, policymakers in the United States and throughout East Asia were alarmed by China’s initiatives. Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea were breathtakingly broad, leading to nasty incidents with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other nations.  Even worse were the confrontations between China and Japan over islands in the East China Sea, along with Beijing’s unilateral proclamation of an extensive Air Defense Identification Zone in that same area, which led to a surge of tensions with Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Two developments illustrate the new, less confrontational trend in China’s policy. One is Beijing’s concerted diplomatic courtship of such countries as South Korea, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka. As I discuss in a recent article in China-U.S. Focus, even such longstanding rivals as Japan and India have been recipients of this Chinese “charm offensive.” 

The other sign of uncharacteristic restraint is Beijing’s handling of the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. True, there are indications that the Chinese government may have organized and paid for counterdemonstrators to confront and harass democracy activists.  But, at least to this point, there is no indication that Xi Jinping’s government intends to intervene directly with its security forces, much less trigger a bloodbath reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Instead, Beijing has allowed its appointed authorities in Hong Kong to manage the turbulence.  

That is a smart move because the United States and the nations of East Asia are closely watching how the Chinese government handles the democratic ferment in Hong Kong. Taiwan is an especially interested spectator, and if Beijing wants to preserve the possibility of the island’s eventual return to the Chinese fold, a brutal crackdown in Hong Kong would doom those hopes for a generation or more. Conversely, the toleration of even limited moves toward free elections for Hong Kong’s leadership would increase the chances of seducing Taiwan regarding the desirability of gradual re-unification. It appears that Xi and his associates may understand that.

Of course, further developments bear close watching, since they could move quickly in an undesirable direction. It is possible that Beijing’s more conciliatory stance toward its Asian neighbors and its restraint regarding Hong Kong is merely a temporary tactical shift, and that we will soon see a return to a bold, confrontational approach. But if the current restraint instead is the harbinger of a more cautious, cooperative policy over the long term on geopolitical issues, China would become easier to accommodate as a rising great power. That would be good for the peace and security of East Asia and for harmonious relations between Beijing and Washington.