Mihir Sharma

China's Belligerence Is Spoiling Its Chance to Lead Asia

In India’s social media-obsessed polity, statements by ministers that do well online are closely watched — and their popularity can even push the government in new policy directions. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently set Indian Twitter alight when he told off a mainly European audience quizzing him about India’s studied neutrality over the war in Ukraine. “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems,” said Jaishankar.

Video of India’s top diplomat telling the uppity Europeans to stop being Eurocentric promptly went viral. The only way the numbers might have been better, perhaps, is if he had been upbraiding the far more uppity Americans.

This small example encapsulates the dangers to the West of the current moment. A close focus on constraining Russia now and even after hostilities in Ukraine cease is alienating large parts of the emerging world, including India. If the United States risks losing the Global South, however, so does China.

On the one hand, a US wary of trade and integration presents limited economic opportunities for emerging countries in the medium term. Rising interest rates in the West mean that developing economies are less likely to construct their growth plans around attracting global capital. Moreover, few governments — whether autocracies or democracies — appreciate increasingly intrusive questions about human rights from liberals in Western centers of power.

It should not, technically, be impossible for this to be a turning point. India increasingly shares with Russia and China a common approach to economic growth driven by state capitalism or tame oligarchs. All three countries see themselves as “civilizational” societies, held back by an outdated and US-dominated liberal order. This could be an opportunity for them to grow closer, creating a continental bloc focused on establishing a new multipolar order.

At the same time, China isn’t doing itself any favors. True, Beijing still seems to offer parts of the world a growth and investment proposition that the US and Europe do not — which is perhaps why a recent survey found that a majority of young people in 15 African countries believe that China has a bigger positive influence in their region than the US.

But Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership. Even as Jaishankar’s comments went viral in India, so did remarks by Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at a high-profile security conference in Singapore last weekend. Wei asserted that Beijing bore “no responsibility” for recent tensions on the Sino-Indian border, which have periodically flared into violence. Indians, naturally, resent the implication that they are solely responsible for clashes that have resulted in the deaths of dozens of their soldiers.

The difference in narrative management is striking. New Delhi has gone out of its way to minimize the impact of these clashes and even managed to keep the normally bellicose Indian news media from making too much noise about repeated Chinese incursions. Jaishankar himself, at the same forum where he took down the Europeans, was relatively mild about Beijing: “We have a difficult relationship with China,” he noted. “We are perfectly capable of managing it.”

Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting to countries such as India as Western paternalism is. This is a problem that dates back to shortly after Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister eight years ago. He began by trying to woo Beijing, even hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping in his hometown of Ahmedabad. During the visit, People’s Liberation Army troops crossed into Indian territory in a major incursion along the northern border.

Every time the PLA pushes in the Himalayas, and every time a Chinese minister issue bellicose statements about bilateral relations in a public forum, China loses another opportunity to get India onside. Chinese embassies even in friendly African nations have made startlingly contemptuous statements about their host countries. The Chinese embassy to Zimbabwe said that, if not for Chinese investment, negative online comments about China would “be scribbled on a piece of paper in a candlelit room.”

Aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy is just the most visible manifestation of a broader problem. Even Southeast Asian countries that should be well disposed to a crucial trade partner, from Singapore to the Philippines, don’t want to replace distant Western arrogance with an equally overbearing presence closer to home.

Each Chinese fumble reminds policy makers in capitals such as New Delhi or Jakarta that even if the US is inwardly focused and Europe is self-righteous, these may in the long-term be less deadly sins than China’s determined unwillingness to compromise. The US isn’t the only great power that should be reflecting on its mistakes and missed opportunities right now.