“Good neighbors don’t grab your islands.”
China, has a credibility problem, and its name is Xi Jinping.
Since Xi became the country’s paramount leader in 2012, China’s foreign policy has been increasingly aggressive—and often belligerent–toward its neighbors in the South China Sea. In that same year, China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, which is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It has since turned disputed islands and reefs in the South China Sea into military bases and airstrips.
Domestically, Xi’s ruthless crackdown on all forms of dissent has all but destroyed the autonomy that had enabled Hong Kong to flourish. Short of threatening force, but allowing his military to make repeated incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone, Xi recently suggested a similar fate might be in store for the democratically ruled island through “peaceful reunification.” This was an ominous reminder of his 2019 threat to use force to bring the island under Beijing’s control.
Under Xi, who seems obsessed with image and power, censorship of the internet has ramped up significantly—best exemplified perhaps by the ban on the cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, after a meme compared his rotund physique to the popular bear of children’s fiction. As the coronavirus spread rapidly through Wuhan, China in 2020, Chinese censors suppressed information that could have saved lives.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult for us to take President Xi at his word when he told leaders of the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a summit on Monday that Beijing would not “bully” its smaller regional neighbors, amid rising tension over Beijing’s actions.
Xi also said China would never seek hegemony nor take advantage of its size to coerce smaller countries, and would work with ASEAN to eliminate “interference.”
“China was, is, and will always be a good neighbor, good friend, and good partner of ASEAN,” Chinese state media quoted Xi as saying.
Xi’s assurances rang hollow, however, in the wake of the Nov. 16 incident in which Chinese coast guard vessels fired water cannons at Philippine boats on a resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal, a Philippine-occupied atoll in the West Philippine Sea.
Over Manila’s protests, the Chinese had the temerity to claim that their vessels were merely doing their jobs because the Philippine boats were “trespassing.”
The Chinese action drew immediate criticism from the United States, the European Union, Japan and Australia. Even President Duterte, who has often taken an obsequious stance toward Beijing in the name of better relations, was compelled to denounce the action and referred to a 2016 international arbitration ruling that found China’s expansive claim to the South China Sea had no legal basis.
But like his “friend” Xi, Mr. Duterte has a credibility problem of his own, having defended Beijing on numerous occasions during his six-year term after Chinese incursions into Philippine waters. His recent “outrage” can easily be pooh-poohed as posturing ahead of next year’s elections, where Mr. Duterte will seek a seat in the Senate—after telling the public that he would retire from politics, and after he had told his officials to ignore summonses from the very body he now wishes to join.
As for Xi, we simply don’t buy the rhetoric. Good neighbors don’t grab your islands. In the wake of China’s military expansion in the South China Sea, Xi’s claims of friendship and amity simply don’t hold water.