Can Asia Stand Up to China's Bullying?

Can Asia Stand Up to China's Bullying?
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
What you need to know

European countries are gradually standing up against China's suppression, but what about Asia?

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Several weeks ago, Sweden’s foreign minister defied threats from China and awarded a freedom of speech prize to Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen and bookseller who was kidnapped in 2015 and remains detained somewhere in China.

The day after, two Australian politicians were refused visas to visit China over their outspoken criticisms unless they apologized. But they promptly refuted Beijing’s demand to “repent.” In October, the mayor of Prague cut sister city ties with Beijing since the agreement insisted on the European city’s recognition of Taiwan being a part of China. He has since initiated a plan to establish a similar relationship with Taipei instead.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
Swedish Culture and Democracy Minister Amanda Lind presents Swedish PEN's Tucholsky Prize to jailed Swedish-Chinese publisher Gui Minhai in Stockholm, November 15, 2019.

As China becomes more heavy-handed in its foreign relations and more repressive domestically, there is a growing awareness around the world of a need to push back.

The ongoing trade war between the United States and China is the most obvious example, but other countries are doing so through various means. While this is encouraging, there is one problem. All of these countries are English-speaking “Western” nations. Not one of them is in Asia.

Beijing is emboldened by Asia's silence and inaction

Very few Asian countries openly stand up to China. Taiwan, under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), is an obvious exception, as is Japan, one of the very few Asian nations that can match China in military strength. India and Vietnam have resisted in specific incidents such as Chinese encroachment in border areas or waters but otherwise are also careful not to antagonize China.

The reasons might be obvious but they are still disconcerting and point to a sad reality.

Take the ongoing Hong Kong protests, which started off opposing a sinister extradition bill, have broadened into an outcry against the local government and the Chinese Communist Party. While President Tsai has openly voiced support for the pro-democracy protesters, as have Japanese politicians, no other Asian country has done so.

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Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images
A protester holds an American flag at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, November 20, 2019.

Instead, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien-Loong and other officials have spoken out against the Hong Kong protesters. Meanwhile, countries like Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, have remained silent or simply called for peace. Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad did speak out, saying Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam should step down.

Worse is the ongoing mass detention of over a million Uyghurs in concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang region. While Western nations have criticized China for this, there has been a noticeable silence from Muslim and Asian countries, despite the fact that the Uyghurs are Muslims. Mahathir Mohamad openly admitted China could not be censured over the Uyghur detentions because the country is too “powerful,” though he has not been reticent when it came to criticizing Israel or Myanmar over mistreating Muslims.

The problem is that kowtowing to China becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When nations fail to stand up to China because they think it is futile, China will continue to behave with more impunity and it will be even more difficult to take action in the future. China is increasingly threatening its neighbors in many ways including territorial encroachment, military threats, arbitrary detention of foreign citizens, and taking control of resources like water and islets.

As can be seen by China’s unopposed takeover of much of the South China Sea during the past few years, the failure to act by Asian nations, especially those from ASEAN, was costly.

The Philippines did launch a challenge in an international arbitration tribunal against China, and actually won in 2016. Unfortunately, the Philippines failed to follow up as current president Rodrigo Duterte decided to placate Beijing. Years on, he vacillates between fawning over China and Xi Jinping and talking tough due to domestic criticism. In the meantime, China has continued to occupy islets close to the Philippines, threaten Filipino fishermen in their country’s own waters, and even fall short drastically on earlier promises of billions of dollars’ worth of loans and grants.

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Photo Credit:  Reuters / TPG Images
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte (R) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a state visit to Manila in December 2018.

There are several reasons for Asian countries to be wary of China, which dwarfs many of them in terms of population, economic GDP, and military size and strength. Many countries have strong trade relations with China and do not want to jeopardize this, as well as foreign investment flowing from China. For instance, China has been ASEAN’s top trading partner for 10 years up to 2018.

Fear of China’s military is another factor, especially since no ASEAN nation has a navy that remotely comes close to China’s. As such, China has been able to act with impunity and take control of much of the South China Sea, with only Vietnam daring to challenge China in coastal waters.

Even Western countries such as Canada, Italy, and even Australia find it hard to directly confront China, due to significant trade, direct investment and loads of Chinese tourists and tertiary students. But this does not prevent Western countries from pushing back in different ways as can be seen from the examples at the beginning of this article.

Taiwan sets a strong example for the rest of Asia

Under President Tsai, Taiwan has faced numerous threats from China as well as provocations from its warplanes and naval ships. China has also barred its citizens from traveling to Taiwan individually while substantially reducing the number of tour groups allowed to come to Taiwan. China has also lured seven countries away from Taiwan, reducing its diplomatic allies to 15. Yet after years of coercion, Taiwan is still standing and its economy is poised to see GDP growth of over 2 percent this year, exceeding expectations.

Taiwan has long been reliant on trade with China, which along with Hong Kong accounts for over 30 percent of Taiwan’s trade and 40 percent of its exports. Despite the rocky ties of the past three years, Taiwan-China trade still remains intact, showing that Tsai’s defiance has not come at a huge cost. In contrast, her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who promoted closer relations with China, had pushed for an overwhelming dependency on China in economic and geopolitical matters, which would have sacrificed Taiwan's progress in democracy and autonomy.

While taking a blunt stand like Tsai might be too much for most Asian countries, they can at least start with small steps like not being afraid to speak out on issues like China’s takeover of the South China Sea or the Hong Kong protests.

The global struggle to stand up to China cannot just rest on the U.S. and the West. Asian nations need to follow suit and take a firmer stance, otherwise, China will always remain “too powerful.”

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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