from Asia Unbound

China’s Not-So-Beautiful Neighborhood

November 30, 2012

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
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Diplomacy and International Institutions

Territorial Disputes

It is time for China and the rest of Asia to wave good-bye to Mr. Rogers. The Asia Pacific is no longer a beautiful neighborhood. Instead, it has become a battleground for demarcating property lines, grandiose plans for home expansion, and a general lack of good manners. And the situation is only likely to get more contentious with the arrival of Xi Jinping and the new Chinese Politburo Standing Committee to the neighborhood.

In one of his first public appearances since being named the head of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping claimed, “I believe the revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the nation since modern times.” This comes on the heels of President Hu Jintao’s 18th Party Congress opening speech—the drafting of which was supervised by Xi Jinping—in which Hu called for China to become a maritime power and transform into a military power “commensurate with China’s international standing.”

Perhaps even more important than Xi Jinping’s charged-up rhetoric is his charged-up policy. Since 2011, Xi has reportedly headed the small group charged with overseeing policy coordination on the South China Sea, the site of China’s most assertive foreign policy moves in recent years. Chinese boats now routinely patrol in waters claimed by the Philippines, Japan, and Vietnam, and in just the few short weeks since Xi’s appointment, China has announced that military police from Hainan Island have the right to board ships in what Beijing deems its territorial waters—a far greater expanse than any other country acknowledges as China’s.

There has also been a dust-up over a new Chinese passport which incorporates a picture that depicts a number of disputed territories as Chinese territory. Vietnam, the Philippines, and India have all taken retaliatory action by not stamping Chinese citizens’ passports or issuing visa documents that reflect these disputed territories as their own; and Taiwan has formally complained. Chinese netizens, of course, have weighed in as well. While some support the passport, others take a dim view of such pettiness. One blogger notes, “It is this blogger’s opinion that China’s new passport emphasizes the exclusionary Chinese position, if she’s considerate, such countries will reciprocate—China is seeking its own trouble! China is a large country, and such sleight of hand doesn’t fit our image. Such trickery is really boring, and not worth the fuss.”  And another comments, “It’s fine to have a territorial consciousness, but does it need to be printed on the passport? The ‘godfathers’ all have passports from other countries, while ordinary citizens are the unlucky ones, discriminated against abroad for their Chinese passports. Stay home this round.”

China is the biggest, strongest, and wealthiest homeowner on the block, and it appears to be seizing the moment to define a new set of rules for the neighborhood. As Philip Bowring has noted, “Beijing is using its power to create new facts on the ground.” It will not be enough for the other powers in the region to adopt a set of disparate, defensive strategies; they need a coordinated effort to establish their own set of good neighbor policies that includes both security cooperation and even joint efforts to develop the much desired resources of the contested seas. They can call it modeling best behavior. Mr. Rogers would certainly have approved.