China scores diplomatic hat trick after flexing economic muscle
Three nations on three continents — Norway, Mongolia and the tiny West African country of Sao Tome and Principe — together this week demonstrated China’s readiness to use its economic leverage to achieve its national interests.
Within 48 hours, each publicly recanted for perceived offenses to China’s “core interests,” including support for Taiwan, Tibet and a local activist who called for ending the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. While the cases were unrelated, they had a similar element: promises of better ties with the world’s second-largest economy, such as trade deals and financial support.
The developments amount to a diplomatic hat trick unusual even in a world where China increasingly flexes its muscles in international affairs. They show the challenge facing U.S. President-elect Donald Trump should he continue to test China’s red line on Taiwan in pursuit of better deals on trade and currency policy once he’s in office.
“China is getting better at harnessing all of the tools in its arsenal to achieve its diplomatic objectives and advance its projects,” said Rosita Dellios, an associate international relations professor at Bond University in Gold Coast, Australia. “It’s using this to create greater respect, and greater respect is coming to China.”
President Xi Jinping has shown an increased willingness to use the clout that China has accumulated over decades of booming trade, foreign investment and overseas aid. The lure of maintaining those ties has proven too great for even more advanced economies to resist.
China suspended ministerial contact with the U.K. for more than a year after then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s May 2012 meeting with exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a separatist. Ties didn’t improve until Cameron reaffirmed the U.K.’s opposition to Tibetan independence and pledged to respect China’s interests.
For Norway, it took six years to recover after supporting the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s 2010 decision to award the Peace Prize to jailed Chinese democracy advocate, Liu Xiaobo. In response, China suspended ties and froze free-trade talks. Norwegian salmon lost market share in the world’s most populous country.
On Monday, the two sides agreed to normalize ties, saying in a joint statement that Norway “attaches high importance to China’s core interests and major concerns, will not support actions that undermine them, and will do its best to avoid any future damage to the bilateral relations.” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said his government was ready to resume trade negotiations.
Stein Ringen, a Norwegian professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Oxford, called the decision a “humiliation for Norway,” which has cast itself as a leading defender of human rights.
“Norway was made an example of,” said Ringen, author of “The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century.” Ringen said China’s message was, “if you want to be on business terms with us, kowtow, bring tribute and accept our interests as we define them and our versions of history and international relations.”
Mongolia, which has been seeking a Chinese loan to ease a financial crisis, faced the prospect of a similar freeze-out after the Dalai Lama visited the country last month. On Tuesday, Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil told local media that the country “deeply regrets” the trip and that the Tibetan leader wouldn’t be allowed to visit his country even on religious grounds.
That same day, Sao Tome and Principe announced it would end almost two decades of formal relations with Taiwan, leaving the self-ruled island with just 21 diplomatic partners. Taiwan, which China considers a rogue province, accused the cash-strapped African country of making “astronomical” demands for financial aid to maintain ties in an attempt to force it into a bidding war with the mainland.
In October, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte secured promises for $24 billion in soft loans and investment deals after declaring a foreign policy shift toward China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described the event as a “gorgeous turnabout,” after Duterte’s predecessor was the most vocal critic of Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea.
Graham Webster, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s China Center, said countries that fell out with China may have been feeling pressure for a long time before Trump was elected promising a more confrontational approach.
“These displays of compliance tell a foreign audience there is at minimum an opportunity cost to opposing Chinese wishes on key matters,” Webster said. “It’s hard to imagine the U.S. government providing competing support for third states who wish to stand against Chinese pressure.”
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.