Can China handle the growing backlash?

This article is more than 12 months old

Beijing eschews 'lay low' approach that helped it grow and now presents an image of a proud swaggering great power

China's rise over the last generation has been impressive, with the country moving from the periphery to the centre of the global system and climbing from impoverished backwater to a position of wealth and power.

But the strategic environment, in which China's "lay low" approach to international affairs helped to make it the world's second largest economy, is changing - and a broader backlash against China is beginning.

Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has been pushing an increasingly aggressive and high-profile foreign policy, attracting the sort of attention his predecessors had carefully avoided.

Now, countries that only a few years ago welcomed Chinese investment and engagement are beginning to mobilise against Chinese influence.

The US, in particular, pushed for China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, which ultimately served as an inflection point in China's economic growth.

In the 21st century, Washington has focused most of its attention on Islamist terrorism, the Middle East and Afghanistan, while Europe has been preoccupied with the euro and growth of the European Union. Only Japan has maintained solid strategic focus on Chinese ambition over the last generation.

While this was happening, Beijing played its hand skilfully.

Decades earlier, when China first embarked on its economic reform project, Deng Xiaoping, China's leader from 1978 to 1989, urged subsequent generations of leaders to maintain a low international profile.

The last five years upended nearly all of this in short order.

Indirect diplomatic suggestions have been swopped for attention-grabbing proposals, strategic ambiguity abandoned for international military bases, high-profile drills, showy parades and stand-offs with neighbouring countries.

Mr Xi's Belt and Road initiativelast month led to China seizing ownership of a port in Sri Lanka after local entities defaulted on the onerous terms China had demanded. The local outcry was substantial.

Where China had chosen for the last generation to cultivate an image of itself that stood for partnership and resistance to "Western imperialism", Mr Xi has tossed it out in favour of an image of a proud swaggering great power that evinces little concern for how its actions are perceived abroad.

Anti-China trade sentiment has now bubbled up high enough in the US that Washington's new strategic directive admits China to be an adversarial "revisionist power", where softer language had been preferred in the past.

Just this week, French President Emmanuel Macron took the unusual step of cautioning China publicly that the Belt and Road projects "cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals".

Modern China has never faced simultaneous suspicion of its motives and objectives in both the West and the developing world. Its diplomats are more experienced at deflecting critics than engaging them, and the party's domestic politics demand a near-absolute protection of "core interests".

This does not bode well for a country that will have to start addressing legitimate diplomatic concerns globally.

How Beijing handles this backlash will reveal what kind of a country it plans to be and how it will handle this new role in the world. - REUTERS

The writer is founder and policy director of The Metropolitan Society for International Affairs, a New York-based think-tank.