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The China Challenge: Beijing Is Pursuing the Wrong Strategy in its Bid To Win Allies
Trying to bully countries into submission is turning them into adversaries
By Zachary Shore
One of the more simplistic though popular clichés about U.S.-China relations is that America plays chess while China plays Go. Using board games to explain international relations can be misleading, but if such a comparison can provide insights, then a more helpful analogy is to the game Reversi, marketed as Othello in the U.S.
Reversi is played with discs that are black on one side and white on the other. The two players are assigned a color, and taking turns, they place one disc at a time on the board with the assigned color facing up. If white is your color, then the aim is to surround your opponent’s black discs with your white ones; when that happens to each black disc, it flips to white. In Go, you encircle and then remove your opponent’s pieces from the board. In Reversi, you flip them to your side.
The Cold War was a game of Reversi that Russia lost. And it is a game that Beijing is losing today. During the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia struggled to flip smaller states to their side. Moscow tried to keep Eastern European countries on its side by force, but they ultimately chose to flip by breaking down the walls between East and West and ousting communist regimes. It was a stunning example of soft power in action.
Today, China may be experiencing a feeling of encirclement, especially as U.S. allies increase their naval activities in the South China Sea. First France sent a warship for joint operations with Japan. Germany then sent a ship to the region for the first time in 20 years. The U.K. did the same, and India announced it will follow suit. The message to Beijing is unmistakable: You'll have to take on all of us. Beijing would like to flip some neutral states or U.S. allies to its side, but it hasn't figured out how to do that. Instead, it is unwittingly doing the opposite.
Beijing might not grasp the concept of soft power and how it works. By bullying smaller states, Beijing seems to think that they should simply respect its greater strength and acquiesce. Sometimes they do, but more and more, they’re choosing either strict neutrality or alignment with the U.S.
Australia has had strong trade ties to China for years. China’s purchase of Australian goods and raw materials accounted for nearly 40% of Australia’s total exports last year. But Beijing’s meddling in Australia’s domestic politics, and its punishing tariffs on Australian imports in response to Canberra’s criticism, has not led Australia to bow to China’s demands. Instead, China’s actions prompted Australia to join the U.S. and the U.K. in a strategic alliance (anchored by a nuclear submarine deal) directed at China. Australia has long been an ally of the U.S., but the Aussies had enough of being bullied and chose to draw even closer to the American-led side.
The tiny Baltic state of Lithuania has also been on the receiving end of Beijing’s machinations, and it, too, chose to oppose Goliath. Its leaders know well the pain of subservience to a foreign autocratic regime. Following the Soviet Union’s demise, Lithuania joined both NATO and the European Union, anchoring itself in Western institutions and flipping away from Moscow’s control. After Lithuanian officials discovered censorship spyware embedded in their Chinese-made phones, the government advised ditching the devices. Vilnius also indicated support for Taiwan.
Beijing struck back immediately, believing it could crush an insignificant nation that dared defy it. Suddenly, the Chinese imports on which Lithuania most depends became unavailable, and Lithuanian goods became impossible to sell in China. Chinese media mocked the Baltic country for its size and attitude. Presumably, Beijing believed that it could cow Lithuania into submission. It backfired. Lithuania has only hardened its stance. Beijing is unintentionally driving smaller states deeper into the arms of Washington.
And then there is Taiwan. The dramatic increase in Chinese incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and waters not only has the region on edge, it has also intensified Taiwan’s determination to ramp up its defenses, the opposite of what China should want. Last year, before the jump in Beijing’s military incursions, a Pew survey found that Taiwanese favor closer ties to America over China by nearly 2 to 1. Only 4% of adults on the island considered themselves just Chinese, identifying as either Taiwanese or as both Taiwanese and Chinese.
Today, support for China must be even lower. Beijing’s actions are ensuring that Taiwan will not flip to China’s side. If Beijing understood how soft power works, it would adopt a different approach. It would steadily show the benefits of a union with the mainland, until eventually Taiwan’s political leaders, reflecting the will of their voters, held a referendum to decide the island’s future. But that’s a course Beijing is unlikely to follow.
Authoritarian regimes are often ham-handed in their efforts to win allies. Beijing’s power does not always translate into influence, as the scholar and China-watcher Evelyn Goh has argued. We can see this most clearly in Southeast Asia, where China’s influence should be strongest. A survey of 10 Southeast Asian countries released in February found that 67.1% of respondents chose Japan as their most-favored strategic partner. China appealed to only 16.5%.
There is a lesson that many Western leaders might learn from reading Thucydides. In one passage in his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” the Spartan king cautions against war with Athens until Sparta has gathered more allies. The king understood that reliable allies are worth more than just the soldiers, ships and resources that they bring. The more countries you can attract to your side, the more legitimate your cause appears. Conversely, when you lack true allies, wars are lonely and victories short-lived.
One Chinese equivalent to the “History of the Peloponnesian War” (with a hint of Shakespearean tragedy mixed in) is “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” in which kingdoms constantly switch sides, forming and re-forming alignments as each side seeks advantage over the rest. It would indeed be tragic if China’s leaders read too much of “Three Kingdoms” and too little Thucydides. They might not grasp the difference between ephemeral alignments, such as the ones the Soviet Union thought it had in Eastern Europe, and durable allies.
Alignments are born of shared interests; allies are forged from shared values. If China feels encircled, it is because it has not figured out how to make its values appealing. Until it does, Beijing might excel at Go, but it has much to learn about Reversi.