Ever since China embarked on its retaliatory campaign against South Korea, of state-orchestrated protests, business closures, and boycotts, I’ve often tweeted that China is opposed to unilateral sanctions, except when it isn’t. Recently, the Asan Institute released the results of a survey showing that this campaign has done the unthinkable — it has made China even more unpopular than Japan in the eyes of South Koreans.
For anyone who has lived in South Korea, it’s hard to overstate the significance of this. And if China’s goal was to depress South Korean support for THAAD, its strategy has been a failure.
With the caveat that coincidence isn’t the same as causation, the South China Morning Post reasonably concludes that China’s sanctions against South Korea have backfired and increased public support for THAAD:
“Even more surprising is that Koreans are now more favourable toward Japan (3.33) than China (3.21),” it said, noting Japan had consistently been Koreans’ least favoured country after the North.
The survey also showed the ratings of US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe all declining, but Xi’s falling the most, plunging from 4.25 in January to 3.01 in March.
“The only good news for President Xi was that his rating remained higher than Prime Minister Abe’s,” Asan said.
The survey, of 1000 adults carried out from March 6-8, also showed increasing support for THAAD, with 50.6 per cent in favour, up from 46.3 per cent in November, with opposition falling from 45.7 per cent to 37.9 per cent. [SCMP]
Despite a small and temporary drop in pro-American sentiment after Donald Trump’s election, reports of a Trump Shock (such as this one, from Putinprop outfit Sputnik) turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. All of this is bad news for the Chinese foreign policy and security establishments, which (as I argued here) see themselves as in a zero-sum competition with the U.S. for influence in Asia. The fact that they believe this makes it mostly true, no matter how much pro-China scholars may wish it were not. It’s increasingly undeniable that the little gray men pulling the levers in the Forbidden City are profoundly anti-American, and are waging a propaganda war against us. I’m old enough to remember the Tienanmen Massacre, when all the smart people said that the correct response was to increase trade with China, because capitalism would make China friendly and free (sound familiar?). It’s not working out that way.
Behind this propaganda are both offensive and defensive aspects. One clearly senses that Beijing is on the defensive and sees itself as besieged by our ideas — mostly, as expressed in private speech by journalists and NGOs. (China, like North Korea, makes no distinction between speech by the state, the press, movie studios, and private individuals; it sees censorship as a “responsible” state’s right and duty.) But there is also a more offensive agenda behind what China is sowing here.
It’s worth recalling that Xi Jinping’s ham-handed reaction is to the stationing of a purely defensive missile system in South Korea, to protect South Korean cities from a nuclear threat that China | has | done | so | much | to | create in the first place. If you actually click those links and read those posts, what’s now undeniable is that China’s support for North Korea isn’t just economic support that incidentally aids its nuclear and missile programs. Rather, China is willfully hosting Pyongyang’s proliferation networks, laundering money for entities that are designated by both the U.S. and the U.N. for proliferation, and selling Pyongyang the materiel it uses in its missile programs, including the trucks its missiles ride on.
In other words, China is using North Korea to menace and intimidate South Korea, and when South Korea tries to protect itself, China is using its economic power to bully South Korea into submission and unilateral disarmament. As South Korea’s ally, we must not stand for this. I expect that when President Trump meets with “President” Xi (as China calls its unelected tyrants), he will tell Xi to knock it off. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson previously told the Chinese that its bullying of South Korea was “uncalled-for.” But it was Defense Secretary James Mattis who really nailed it when he said this:
“In the South China Sea, we see China shredding trust as they adopt a tribute-nation kind of approach where all other nations have to pay tribute or acquiescence to the more powerful nation, the larger nation,” Mattis said during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.
Mattis also accused China of “seeking veto power over the economic, diplomatic, and security decisions of nations on their periphery.” He did not elaborate, but one such case is Beijing’s retaliatory measures against South Korea for hosting the U.S. THAAD missile defense system. [Yonhap]
Also spot-on was Congressman Ted Yoho, who accused China of “sanctioning the wrong Korea.” Then, yesterday, 26 senators from both parties released this letter:
All of this is exactly right, for now. The U.S. is sending a clear and united message against China’s ham-handed imperial overreach, and that message is being heard in Seoul. It’s a message we can sharpen further: I’m convinced that China means nothing less than to disarm South Korea, suppress its sovereignty, decide what its newspapers can print, and control its resources. Its ambitions for Korea aren’t materially different than Japan’s ambitions for Korea in 1905. For now, Seoul is defiant. But in the long term, China means to impose its own Eulsa Treaty on Korea, and it probably thinks it has found just the man to sign it.
I’ve argued that Xi Jinping’s economic warfare against a close U.S. ally calls for economic deterrence against China in concert with China’s two other largest trading partners, Japan and South Korea. I say this despite acknowledging that finishing the trade war that China started will have costs for everyone. My hope is that a strong and focused response that targets banks, businesses, and the port in, say, Dandong, would cause enough political trouble for Xi to end the war quickly and prevent a recurrence. If Trump is feeling protectionist anyway, why not use a protectionist counter-attack to damage North Korea’s finances and Xi Jinping’s domestic political support, and increase the confidence of our allies that we’ll stand behind them?
But of course, our response doesn’t have to be symmetrical. Other tools at our disposal will do us less harm. One of those is to strike harder in the political war that China is already waging against us. It’s time to speak clearly to the peoples of Asia about Xi Jinping’s plans for a grand new Co-Prosperity Sphere in which they will be China’s tributaries. As in the past, the tributaries’ share of that prosperity will be highly unequal. China’s conduct is both a threat and an opportunity to drive home what is now manifest. Xi Jinping means to bully his way into economic, naval, and (ultimately) political hegemony over all of East Asia. He isn’t building those islands in the South China Sea just to protect Chinese trade routes. He isn’t even building them because he wants the fish and the oil in those waters. As the THAAD episode clearly illustrates, he wants to be in a position to dominate his neighbors. If we mean to prevent that outcome, we will all have to unite against it.