The last week of February demonstrated what is becoming a pattern for China—a series of events that show that the country is being pulled to its extremes even as it tries its hardest to remain firmly in the center.
In a rare move that suggests an opportunity for cooperation between China and the United States, the two countries agreed on a possible U.N. resolution to sanction North Korea because of its latest nuclear test. While the two sides may be pleased to work together finally on North Korea, the circumstances represent a loss of face for China. Despite the influence it was believed to wield, China has been unable or unwilling to exercise any meaningful control over its neighbor since Kim Jong-un became North Korea’s leader at the end of 2011. At the same time, China is opposing possible U.S. plans to deploy an antimissile system in South Korea, believing that system could be used against it.
One area where the United States and China are far from agreement is the South China Sea. There irritation over China’s expansion of disputed atolls and islands, including the construction of airstrips, has progressed to genuine trepidation after the apparent deployment of surface-to-air missiles on one of those islands and the arrival of military aircraft. China claims almost the entire sea as its territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, despite competing claims from Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The United States has demanded that China respect freedom of navigation through the area, and China has been irked by U.S. destroyers sailing through the area to press home the U.S. position. With greater Chinese firepower now delivered to the area, the risk of some kind of accidental exchange has grown.
That dispute has at least pushed China’s friction with Japan over the Senkaku Islands to the back burner for now. While China continues to pump up public enmity toward Japan regarding unresolved issues from World War II, including the sovereignty of the Senkakus, it is doing so on a much smaller scale than even six months ago, when it declared a three-day public holiday to celebrate the end of the war and victory over the Japanese empire.
Then, of course, there is the ultimate island dispute, that over Taiwan, which elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, in January. Set to take office in May, Tsai and her Democratic People’s Party have a more pronounced pro-Taiwan independence stance than the outgoing Kuomintang, who see reunification with the rest of China as their ultimate goal.
And speaking of elections, while China is politically savvy enough to understand that statements made against it are designed to rally American voters, it cannot be pleased that it will be regularly name-checked throughout the U.S. election season, both for its military posture and the long-standing belief that China manipulates its currency and steals American jobs.
China’s external issues may be relatively easy to handle compared with addressing its first significant economic decline in decades. After major stock market drops in August and January, on Feb. 25 China’s major bourses again dropped, this time by about six percent. China’s slowing economy continues to worry international observers concerned that China will significantly devalue the renminbi.
Ideologically, China continues to battle against religions and philosophies that conflict with its own version of market Marxism. In the western Province of Sichuan and other Tibetan areas, photos of the Dalai Lama—which Tibetans were previously allowed to possess and carry—were being confiscated. And in Zhejiang Province, where a campaign to remove crosses from church edifices is entering its fourth year, officials have arrested Protestant church leaders for alleged financial improprieties. The most high-profile of these is Pastor Gu Yuese, head of Chongyi Church in Hangzhou, the largest government-sanctioned church in the country.
Has China reached the limits of its power? Is it fighting too many battles on too many fronts, financially, geopolitically and ideologically? Two months into 2016, the overall situation is starting to test China’s President Xi Jinping.
Beijing’s primary goal is always social stability. With the economy declining, how much of China’s external assertiveness is intended as a distraction is a concern; and how far China is willing to go to create distractions as its economy heads lower could become a genuine cause for worry.