Beijing Should Stop Its Bullying

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Rizal Ramli

IO – After a visit by Acting US Defense Secretary Christopher Miller to meet Prabowo Subianto, his Indonesian counterpart, in Jakarta this past week, there were speculation that it was part of an attempt by the White House to convince the Jokowi administration that it should continue to support a hardliner stance coming from Washington towards Xi Jinping and his comrades inside the Chinese Communist Party, even after Joe Biden enters office. 

One American analyst, Zachary Abuza, who teaches at the National War College, made a surprising remark that Trump was trying to force Biden›s hands into adopting his China policy. 

It’s an interesting analysis, but it is totally wrong. Abuza, who said «the Trump administration wants to do things that will make it hard for Biden to reverse or walk back without political consequences», is misreading the American political establishment›s opinions about China. 

Although Democrats and Republicans find little common ground in foreign affairs and Joe Biden will certainly walk back his predecessor›s policies in areas such as climate change and nuclear disarmament, over the recent past both parties have come to agree that Xi Jinping›s China poses a serious challenge to American national security and its interests abroad, especially in the Indo Pacific region. 

In other words, there is no need for political maneuvering. Biden will naturally be less acerbic than Trump when it comes to rhetoric, but in substance his China policy will remain firm, especially on issues such as the South China Sea, trade and human rights. 

Analysts such as Abuza are also wrong in believing a stronger show of American military force in the region is not welcomed by its allies. Abuza said in one interview that «Yes, Indonesia has a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, but they also think US policy, largely based on Freedom of Navigation, is intentionally provocative» and «Indonesians do not want to be pulled into a US-China conflict at any cost.» 

Abuza and like-minded Asia experts in US academia believe precisely what Beijing would like them to believe, which is China›s neighbors are apprehensive about a stronger and more assertive American presence in the region. 

In reality, disputants in the South China Sea imbroglio understand perfectly well that they need America›s help to guarantee their sovereign and collective interests in ensuring freedom of navigation. They understand that if America were less assertive it could easily be misinterpreted by China›s leadership as a sign of weakness and a lack of resolve, hence increasing the chances of Beijing attempting to stake out yet more terroritory in the South China Sea and inadvertently risk a clash of forces. 

Indonesia and its neighbors in ASEAN are frequently misunderstood when they try to appease China or remain reticent on contentious issues such as Beijing’s machinations in Hong Kong or its mistreatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. It is not for lack of being upset or even outrage, at times. Rather, it is a consequence of Beijing›s incessant bullying which, more often than not, carries a hefty economic cost for those not willing to acquiesce. 

One good example is Australia, whose relations with China have increasingly worsened since it called for an independent inquiry into the origins of covid19-. Now the list of grievances levied against Canberra– which includes sins such as blaming China for cyber attacks, banning Huawei from 5G networks and castigating the Chinese Communist Party for its behavior in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang- -has become so long that it seems almost impossible to mend what was once a fairly strong relationship. Bans on imports of Australian barley, lobsters, sugar, timber and copper as well as blocking Australian goods from clearing Chinese ports is a strong signal to its neighbors: if you criticize us, we will inflict pain. 

Beijing should recognize that whilst punishing its critics buys obedience on the domestic front, it will only reap foreign enemies in the long run. Countries reliant on China for trade will be looking for ways to decouple, and alliances between Asian militaries and with the West will only strengthen as Beijing continues to flex its muscles. 

Certainly it would be in everybody›s better interest, including China›s, if Beijing were to use a more diplomatic approach in its foreign affairs. Beijing should not be deluded into thinking its bullying tactics will always play to its favor. It will not