Analysis | China decries U.S. ‘bullying.’ But, to many, China is the bully.

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At a regional security forum in the southern Chinese island of Hainan, Beijing laid out its vision for Asian peace and prosperity. But many onlookers interpreted the remarks made by Zhao Leji, the third highest-ranking official in the ruling Communist Party, as another tacit rebuke of the U.S. role in the region and an articulation of China’s hardening desire for a regional order free of U.S. involvement.

“Hegemonic and bullying acts are deeply harmful,” Zhao, a top leader of the Politburo and head of China’s rubber-stamp parliament, said while delivering a keynote speech at the annual Boao Forum. He did not mention the United States by name but was clearly gesturing to Washington’s open competition with China, tensions over strategic flash points in Asia and the ongoing trade wars pursued by successive U.S. administrations. “We must oppose trade protectionism and all forms of erecting barriers, decoupling or severing supply chains,” he added.

Speaking in slogans routinely put forward by Chinese officials, Zhao painted a rosy picture of Asian governments working in concert to resolve differences and ensuring the region does not become an “arena for geopolitical” rivalries. “We should jointly maintain security in Asia,” Zhao said. “We must always keep in our hands the future of lasting peace and security in Asia.”

A handful of world leaders were also in attendance, including Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Cambodia’s President Hun Sen, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and the leaders of the tiny island nations of Nauru and Dominica.

Analysts present at the forum saw through Zhao’s rhetoric. “The Chinese are vehemently opposed to what they call ‘bloc confrontation’ but the truth is they are building their own sphere of influence in Asia,” Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, told Bloomberg News. “Zhao was quite explicit about this, saying in particular that Asian countries should be jointly responsible for security in the region, a notion that excludes the U.S.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has put forward a somewhat vague project known as the Global Security Initiative — a set of broad-brush principles that, as the Financial Times summed up, “advocates for resolving conflicts through dialogue but which analysts believe ultimately aims to reduce America’s role in global defense, particularly in Asia.” At the forum, Zhao said “we should implement” the initiative.

Other countries in China’s neighborhood are not likely to be convinced. On Monday, the government of the Philippines lodged a protest with Chinese counterparts after a dangerous escalation in the South China Sea, where China’s maritime expansionism is butting against the parallel territorial claims of its weaker neighbors. Authorities in Manila furnished video evidence of a Chinese coast guard vessel attacking a Philippines naval resupply ship with water cannon on March 23, injuring Filipino crew members and damaging their vessel.

This follows a pattern of coercive Chinese measures, including water cannon attacks, deployed around the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, which Manila is defending from constant Chinese encroachment and provocations. The South China Sea is an artery that sees the passage of a third of global trade and its reefs and uninhabited archipelagoes have taken on deeper strategic significance in the shadow of China’s geopolitical rise.

“The systematic and consistent manner in which the People’s Republic of China carries out these illegal and irresponsible actions puts into question and significant doubt the sincerity of its calls for peaceful dialogue,” the Philippines coast guard said in a statement after another incident in December. “We demand that China demonstrate that it is a responsible and trustworthy member of the international community.”

Countries like the Philippines have to walk a careful line, avoiding open conflict with Beijing while checking its opportunism. After this week’s developments, Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wrote on social media that “we seek no conflict with any nation,” but his country would not be “cowed into silence.”

To this end, they can turn to a Biden administration that has quietly bolstered alliances around Asia. Marcos will go to Washington next month for a trilateral summit with President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“The term the administration uses — a ‘latticework’ of alliances and partnerships — is clunky, but the basic strategy is compelling,” wrote Hal Brands, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “Biden has arguably done more than any president since the end of the Cold War to enhance and interlink the strategic relationships that let Washington project power into this vital region.”

These efforts naturally unnerve Beijing, whose officials now routinely invoke the boogeyman of American hegemony lurking around every geopolitical corner. At the same time, China has consciously engaged in a thaw with the Biden administration, seeking to lower temperatures at a moment of profound economic uncertainty within China, with growth sluggish after a decades-long boom. Xi is also trying to revitalize China’s economy in the face of far greater global skepticism and wariness over Chinese practices and intentions.

To that end, the Chinese president hosted a delegation of top U.S. business leaders Wednesday. According to state media, he called for a boosting of trade ties and mending of fences. “The respective successes of China and the United States create opportunities for each other,” Xi was quoted as saying by Xinhua news service. “As long as both sides regard the other as partners, respect each other, peacefully coexist and join together for win-win results, China-U.S. relations will improve.”

But as U.S. lawmakers grow all the more hawkish about China’s ambitions in the region — from its expansionism in the South China Sea to the threats it poses to Taiwan — a “win-win” scenario looks remote. A potential change in government in Washington next year offers little respite.

“For the Chinese strategic community, there’s no perception of Biden or [former president Donald] Trump being better for China; it’s a matter of who is less detrimental,” wrote Wang You, a Ph.D. candidate at the School of International Relations at Jinan University, in China.

Wang suggested that, if anything, a Biden defeat may be preferable to Beijing, given Trump’s record of disruptive, unpredictable diplomacy. “China may even be able to reap some benefits from Trump’s iconoclastic approach to diplomacy,” she added in a column for the Diplomat. “Trump’s foreign policy, particularly his ‘America First’ doctrine, led to a distancing between the United States and some of its traditional allies in the Asia-Pacific and Europe.”

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