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China: New Leaders, Same Assertive Foreign Policy
China: New Leaders, Same Assertive Foreign Policy
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor
Op-Ed / Asia

China: New Leaders, Same Assertive Foreign Policy

Originally published in CNN

China's legislature meets this week to seal a power transfer to new leaders, but don't hold your breath for signs that the new team will ease up on the tough Chinese foreign policy that has ruffled feathers in its neighborhood recently.

As the National People's Congress opened in Beijing, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying warned that the country had sent an "important signal" to the region that it would respond "decisively" to provocations on territorial disputes.

That means we can expect Beijing to continue with its "reactive assertiveness" foreign policy tactic. China has perfected this approach in its ongoing maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas.

The approach allows Beijing to use perceived provocations as a chance to change the status quo in its favor -- all the while insisting the other party started the trouble.

In Beijing's eyes, it is a means of satisfying domestic pressure for a tougher foreign policy to match its economic might, all while trying to cling to the mantra of peaceful development. But this juggling act does not always work, and a number of countries in the region are giving up on the notion of a peacefully rising China.

The prolonged deadlock with Japan over the sovereignty of a few islets offers a vivid example of this approach.

In September, the Japanese government bought from a private owner three of the disputed islands -- called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China -- in the East China Sea. Japan says it purchased the islands to prevent the hardline Tokyo mayor from acquiring them and carrying out a plan to build there.

Beijing interpreted the move as a betrayal of the two countries' agreement to shelve the dispute, and the subsequent months witnessed a string of Chinese retaliations that have kept tensions in the East China Sea simmering.

China's retaliatory measures, termed "combination punches" by the state media, ranged from the verbal -- leaders labeling Japan's purchase of the islands a "farce" and vowing to "never yield an inch" -- to economic pressure, large-scale anti-Japan protests and naval exercises in the East China Sea.

But the game-changer came when Beijing declared its territorial baselines around the islands, a move that legally places them under Chinese administration. Once the announcement was made, China began to regularly dispatch law enforcement vessels to patrol waters off the disputed islands, directly challenging Japan's de facto control of the area for the past 40 years. Such is the new normal, claim Chinese officials.

But Beijing did not stop there. It sent a reconnaissance flight directly over the disputed islands, and Japan responded by scrambling fighter jets. The Chinese navy and air force have intensified their reconnaissance missions and drills in the East China Sea and, according to Japan, even locked weapons-guiding radar on Japanese military assets, claims China denied.

Despite these actions, officials in Beijing have repeatedly stated that Tokyo started all the troubles and must accept full blame.

Now, analysts in Beijing claim that a "Pandora's Box" has been opened, and there is no going back to the tacit agreement that has kept peace in the East China Sea for decades.

Similar heavy-handed action was used against the Philippines in a spat over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in April 2012. When Manila maladroitly responded to a fishing run-in by sending a warship, China took the opportunity to strengthen its claim over the disputed shoal by deploying law enforcement vessels to the area, extending its annual unilateral fishing ban to cover the waters around the shoal; quarantining tropical fruit imports from the Philippines and suspending tourism; and roping off the mouth of the lagoon to keep out other fishermen.

By maintaining regular law enforcement patrols and preventing Filipino fishermen from entering those waters, China has managed to establish a new status quo in its favor.

A similar blueprint was then used in response to a maritime law passed by Vietnam in June 2012 that covered the disputed Spratley and Paracel Islands. Before the ink on the law had dried, China upgraded the administrative status of Sansha City, encompassing a group of disputed islands in the South China Sea, and established a military garrison. The development of Sansha City has continued apace. Following the central government's provision of 10 billion yuan ($1.6 billion) for the construction of the city, Sansha officials are said to be considering plans to build more ports, open casinos and create an offshore tax haven.

By all accounts, new leader Xi Jinping has played a key role in crafting China's response in its maritime disputes and was central to Beijing's response to Japan's island purchase announcement. He was put in charge of a maritime security leading group in mid-2012, then the "Office to Respond to the Diaoyu Crisis" in September. After taking control of both the communist party and the military in November, his rhetoric essentially formalized the reactive assertive tactic by repeating the importance of "peaceful development" while pledging zero tolerance for those who would harm China's "sovereignty, security or development interests."

That is not to say that Beijing is necessarily looking for external troubles, as it remains preoccupied with maintaining the momentum of economic development and preventing domestic problems from erupting into potentially destabilizing unrest.

But unfortunately, there is little appetite in Beijing for blunting the edge of China's "reactively assertive" foreign policy. If anything, opinions are going the other way. As Fu Ying, Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, put it: When facing provocations, the Chinese public "hopes that China will be even more assertive." If there is any perceived slight, no matter how minor, expect China to pounce.

Op-Ed / Asia

National Ambitions Meet Local Opposition Along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

Originally published in The Diplomat

Pakistan’s central government is all-in on CPEC. But at key points, local communities are resisting.

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general election on July 25, most political parties stand united in their belief that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will transform Pakistan’s ailing economy. In May, Pakistan’s ambassador to China asserted that “regardless of any political change in Pakistan, our commitment towards the successful completion of CPEC will not change.”

But if political support at the national level appears unwavering, local opposition is growing over the lack of consultation and concerns regarding the inequitable distribution of the prospective benefits. In few places is this more noticeable than the southern Balochistan fishing town of Gwadar, the entry point of the corridor and a microcosm of the center-periphery tensions elsewhere that threaten CPEC’s implementation.

An Ambitious Vision

Aiming to develop a “growth axis and development belt” between China and Pakistan, CPEC could involve investments of some $60 billion. The corridor connects Gwadar, in the southwestern province of Balochistan, to China’s Xinjiang region via a 2,700 kilometer route through the mountainous terrain of Gilgit-Baltistan in northernmost Pakistan .

For China’s and Pakistan’s foreign policies, the potential payoffs are clear. CPEC is a flagship project of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a geopolitical ambition to develop trade and infrastructure with over 60 economies across Eurasia, Africa, and beyond. For Islamabad, CPEC brings the hope of not only economic dividends but also potentially a geopolitical reconfiguration. Some Pakistani strategists believe deepening ties to China will offset rising U.S. diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at ending Islamabad’s support to Afghanistan- and India-oriented militant proxies.

CPEC’s prospective economic benefits are forecast to materialize slowly across Pakistan between 2017 and 2030. But policy planning has been opaque, omitting details of how development projects will actually impact local economies, infrastructure and business. An urban planner and expert on Gwadar said the government’s plan lacks even “cosmetic consultation.” As more details slowly emerge, local alarm is growing about what CPEC will bring to Balochistan.

Stirring Local Unrest

In Gwadar, the Arabian Sea town in southern Balochistan that CPEC aims to transform into a bustling commercial port, inner city locals fear displacement over government plans to expropriate land, bulldoze the old city, and resettle residents. The state-led land grab is estimated to claim at least 290,000 acres to make way for development, in large part through ultimatums issued to local residents. Those who refuse to sell land or property could simply have it seized by the federal government and would likely face forced resettlement.

Local livelihoods also appear to be under fire. Fisher folk, whose daily catch provides them just enough to feed their families, have on occasion been denied access to the sea and could face the permanent closure of Gwadar’s jetty. Unskilled workers resent exclusion from the port’s construction, as federal authorities favor importing labor from other provinces. One official in Gwadar said that “the plan seems to be to make life so miserable for the residents that they leave on their own.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions.

Nor is it clear that those who stay in Gwadar will reap the fruits of Chinese investment. At the start of the project, Pakistan transferred leasing rights for Gwadar port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company, sealing a deal that grants China 91 percent of the port-generated profits and Islamabad just 9 percent, while denying Balochistan’s provincial government any revenue. With such lopsided terms, China is under minimal pressure to ensure local prosperity.

Anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in step with suspicions of Beijing’s intentions. Some Pakistani security analysts see China’s development plans as a mask for broader geopolitical ambitions. In Gwadar, they perceive Beijing as less interested in developing a transport link to Xinjiang or a commercial waystation to the Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf than eventually transforming the port into a military or naval base, another in a string of installations dotted across the Indian Ocean that affords Beijing the strategic initiative vis-à-vis regional rival India.

Regardless of China’s true intentions, the net result for locals is the same. Economic marginalization is stirring local dissent, which could lead to significant security risks. Balochistan’s insurgency has long rested on popular demands for greater political and economic autonomy. The failure to provide Gwadar the benefits of CPEC development is heightening hostility toward Islamabad and Beijing, and affording Baloch insurgents a chance to expand their outreach and recruit disgruntled locals. Since 2017, Baloch militants have already killed scores of Pakistanis employed on CPEC projects and future attacks might target Chinese construction workers or Chinese nationals living in Pakistan.

A Chance to Reverse Course

Instead of addressing the causes of this dissent, Pakistani authorities have opted to respond through crackdowns of anti-CPEC protests, an overbearing security presence, and harassment and intimidation of local residents. The best chances for the country’s stability – not to mention CPEC’s success in Gwadar and elsewhere – lie in giving provinces and communities a voice in shaping development projects.

In particular, the government should make greater efforts to consult communities and experts regarding the impact of development and reconsider the ongoing policy of rampant land expropriation. It should also put in place measures to ensure the employment of local labor on construction projects to ensure that they reap the dividends of outside investment. Chinese and Pakistani companies, too, ought to take similar measures to assess the risks associated with controversial development initiatives.

Whatever the result of Pakistan’s elections, the new parliament should seize the opportunities of a fresh mandate by informing a new government policy. That policy should have the well-being of Pakistani citizens at its heart, rather than treating it as expendable in the pursuit of mega-development.