The best political commentary out of East Asia last week is the one published on December 15 by South Korea’s second largest newspaper, Dong-A Ilbo. The paper’s editors asked a question on the mind of the entire Korean nation after their president had been outrageously snubbed by the Chinese leadership during his four-day state visit to the communist country, and Korean reporters accompanying their president’s visit were savagely beaten by thuggish Chinese security guards: “China should reflect on this question: why is it that for such a big country, there is hardly any neighbor that can be described as China’s friend?”
The question is poignant. It reveals a spectacular vulnerability of China’s national security: China has no real friends along its long, vast land and maritime borders, and any Chinese aggression against any one of its many aggrieved neighbors will likely trigger a massive defense and military coalescence as well as a much stronger coalition of the willing against China. This is indeed China’s Achilles heel.
China borders 14 countries on land, the most of any nation in the world. China also shares maritime borders with more than half a dozen nations in East and South China Seas. In some form, currently or at some moment in recent history, China has border and maritime disputes with nearly all of its land and maritime neighbors, which is extraordinary in the entire history of international relations. Some of these disputes are dormant at the moment, but many remain active and explosive, constantly threatening general wars in the region and beyond. At present, China is aggressively disputing land and maritime territories with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. Any of these disputes could result in uncontrollable military actions that could have a much greater impact on global peace and stability.
While China remains threatening and aggressive, and its Party-controlled military, collectively known as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest, is growing at an alarming rate, this Achilles heel of China’s own making is keenly felt by China’s rulers. China’s profound fear of a grand international coalition by its many aggrieved neighbors has been revealed in several telling events in recent years, as more and more of China’s neighbors are exploiting China’s weakness by standing firm against China’s aggressive territorial or maritime demands and forcing China to back down.
Since September 2010, China’s extraordinary huff and bluff directed at Japan over the Senkaku [Diaoyu] islands in the East China Sea has failed to subdue Japan. In fact, the opposite has happened, as the Japanese nation is becoming unprecedentedly united against China, and is actively forming a regional alliance to prevent China’s ambitious gambit in the region. Vietnam, a country against which China has launched at least five major military actions in the past four decades, has also realized China’s Achilles heel and stood firm. In 2014, it even successfully forced China to move its deep-sea oil drilling rig HYSY-981 away from the disputed Paracel islands area, and now Vietnam is also actively seeking allies that face the same threats from China, including India, Japan, and even the U.S. South Korea understands this also, as it has not yielded to China’s harsh demands on the deployment of the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system and instead firms up its alliance with the U.S. But the latest example of the exploitation of China’s vulnerability is rendered by India. New Delhi stood firm against China for 10 weeks since mid-June in a tense military standoff in the Doklam region of Bhutan, and forced China to back down, ostensibly to keep trouble from its power-reshuffling Party Congress, but in reality to prevent a regional coalescence against Beijing.
China has much to lose by only resorting to military threats and hot-air bravados against many of its neighbors, because more and more countries in its neighborhood are waking up to realize China’s weakness: once an open conflict is started by China with any of its aggrieved neighbors, all the anti-China forces along China’s land and maritime borders will likely coalesce to form a stronger coalition against China, with or without America’s involvement. Peace through negotiation and by international law is the best approach to relieving China from the worst neighborhood diplomacy in human history.