China Feels Boxed In by the U.S. but Has Few Ways to Push Back


President Biden’s effort to build American security alliances in China’s backyard is likely to reinforce the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s view that Washington is leading an all-out campaign of “containment, encirclement and suppression” of his country. And there is not much Mr. Xi can do about it.

To China, Mr. Biden’s campaign looks nothing short of a reprise of the Cold War, when the world was split into opposing blocs. In this view, Beijing is being hemmed in by U.S. allies and partners, in a cordon stretching over the seas on China’s eastern coast from Japan to the Philippines, along its disputed Himalayan border with India, and even across the vast Pacific Ocean to a string of tiny, but strategic, island nations.

That pressure on China expanded Thursday when Mr. Biden hosted the leaders of Japan and the Philippines at the White House, marking the first-ever trilateral summit between the countries. American officials said the meeting was aimed at projecting a united front against China’s increasingly aggressive behavior against the Philippines in the South China Sea and against Japan in the East China Sea. Mr. Biden described America’s commitment to defense agreements with Japan and the Philippines as “ironclad.”

The summit ended with agreements to hold more naval and coast guard joint exercises, and pledges of new infrastructure investment and technology cooperation. It builds on a groundbreaking defense pact made at Camp David last August between Mr. Biden and the leaders of Japan and South Korea, as well as on plans unveiled last year to work with Australia and Britain to develop and deploy nuclear-powered attack submarines.

Mr. Biden has also sought to draw India, China’s chief rival for influence with poorer countries, closer to Washington’s orbit through a security grouping called the Quad. And a high-profile visit to Washington by the Indian leader last year has intensified Chinese suspicions about India.

“China is clearly alarmed by these developments,” said Jingdong Yuan, director of the China and Asia Security Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “Chinese interpretations would be that the U.S. and its allies have clearly decided that China needs to be contained.”

In response, China has been bolstering its own ties with partners like Russia and North Korea. As recently as Tuesday, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers, meeting in Beijing, warned the United States not to replicate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Asia. Zhao Leji, a senior Chinese leader, traveled to Pyongyang this week and pledged to “strengthen strategic coordination” between the countries.

The United States and its allies are “stoking confrontation in the name of cooperation, flexing muscles in the name of peace, and sowing chaos in the name of order,” the Global Times, a Communist Party newspaper, wrote in an editorial this week. On Friday, China’s coast guard patrolled the waters near the disputed islands in the East China Sea known in China as Diaoyu and in Japan as Senkaku.

But aside from pointed words and the perfunctory maritime patrol, Beijing’s options to push back against U.S. pressure appear limited, analysts said, especially as China contends with slowing economic growth and mounting trade frictions.

Its military, while rapidly modernizing, is untested and would be taking an immense risk by confronting a U.S.-led alliance. Beijing’s resolve is currently being challenged in the South China Sea, amid a standoff with Manila over disputed waters.

Tensions with the Philippines have been running high since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., came into power in 2022 and adopted a more muscular foreign policy, which included resisting China’s vast claims to waters near its shores. Chinese boats have rammed and pointed lasers at Philippine ships, and last month a Chinese coast guard vessel injured three Philippine soldiers with a water cannon.

China has depicted the Philippines as another pawn of the United States and Japan, and sought to portray itself as a victim of U.S. aggression.

Analysts say that dismissive approach, coupled with China’s buildup of artificial islands in the South China Sea replete with military installations and airstrips, has changed the calculus of the Philippines and motivated it to embrace the United States.

China “should know better, as its own activities asserting very aggressively its territorial claims in the South China Sea would push the Philippines toward strengthening ties with the U.S.,” Mr. Yuan said.

Similarly, the Camp David summit last year underscored the depths of Tokyo’s and Seoul’s unease about China’s growing assertiveness, prompting the two Asian neighbors to set aside decades of lingering tension over colonial occupation and World War II.

Whether Mr. Biden’s strategy succeeds in deterring China in the long run remains to be seen. Nationalists in China view American alliances as fragile and subject to the whims of each U.S. presidential election. Then there’s Mr. Xi, who perceives the West to be in structural decline, and China’s ascendance as Asia’s dominant power to be inevitable.

“The Americans should not think so highly of themselves. They could not solve Afghanistan or Ukraine,” said Zheng Yongnian, an influential political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s campus in Shenzhen. He said that China still hoped to resolve its disputes peacefully. “The reason we are not touching the Philippines is not that we are afraid of the United States.”

China has also launched a diplomatic blitz targeting nonaligned powers such as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa. And tiny island nations in the Pacific, which hold great strategic value in the contest for naval supremacy, have also been beneficiaries of China’s charm offensive.

On Tuesday, Mr. Xi hosted President Wesley Simina of the Federated States of Micronesia, an archipelago nation of over 100,000 people that has long been part of the U.S. sphere of influence. Mr. Simina was treated to an honor guard and a red carpet en route to a meeting in the Great Hall of the People, where Mr. Xi promised more Chinese largess.

“China is ready to continue to provide support to the development of island countries to the best of its ability,” Mr. Xi said.

Days earlier, Beijing took the highly unusual step of welcoming Indonesia’s president-elect, Prabowo Subianto, and giving him a meeting with Mr. Xi. Such an honor is usually reserved for a leader after inauguration, and could reflect regret for not courting Mr. Marcos more aggressively after he took power.

Still, Beijing’s room to maneuver against Washington is limited by its struggling economy, which has been hit by a property crisis and a cratering of foreign investment. China has been increasing exports, but that has already caused friction with countries concerned about a flood of cheap Chinese goods.

The broader American pressure campaign may also be nudging China to avoid escalating tensions further. Despite its differences with the United States, China is engaging in talks between the countries’ leaders and senior officials. Relations with some neighbors, such as Australia, are slowly thawing. Analysts have noted that Beijing has also avoided escalating its military presence around Taiwan in recent months, despite the island’s election of a leader the Communist Party loathes.

“They are definitely being more cautious and demonstrating a willingness to engage,” Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, said of Beijing. “They are realizing there are actual risks to letting frictions escalate. We just haven’t seen any substantive compromises yet.”


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