The dangers of China’s military rise may be outweighed by its growing economic clout, a former aide to presidential nominee Hillary Clinton told the South China Morning Post.
China’s military activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea tend to receive the most attention, but while the deployment of war machines is disconcerting, China is using a much subtler weapon to reshape the Asia-Pacific region: economics.
American geopolitical strategists “need to take a bit more seriously than it is currently just how much of the Chinese coercion is taking an economic form,” Jennifer Harris, a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) expert and former member of the U.S. Department of State’s policy planning staff, told the SCMP recently.
Beijing regularly uses economics to “get its way,” she said.
“China is using systematic elements of its economic power to advance its geopolitical position – whether it is reducing the number of countries in the world that recognize Taiwan, curtailing activities of the Dalai Lama, or … imposing economic costs on countries that are vocal on human rights [in China],” Harris explained to the SCMP.
“This is one area that China has done pretty well in advancing its interests, and the US has done less admirably in the use of economic tools to advance objectives,” she added.
The Philippines is the most notable example of Chinese economic-style warfare. Since Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte took office, he pulled away from the U.S. and cozied up to China. He is also softening his position concerning the South China Sea. Duterte is downplaying the Hague ruling against Chinese claims and promising to cancel joint patrols with the U.S. Additionally, the Philippines will not take part in more joint military exercises with the U.S. going forward, over Chinese objections.
In return, Beijing is opening its doors to increased trade with Manila. “I will establish new alliances for trade and commerce,” Duterte said recently. China and the Philippines are also working on increasing weapons sales.
“Right now, there is a lot of Chinese coercion driving the softening of the Philippines,” Harris explained. “China has been enormously successful over the past at least 10 years, and accelerating under Xi Jinping, in flexing economic muscle to get its way,” she added.
Vietnam’s initial embrace of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Japan’s re-militarization are two key examples of Chinese soft power having unintended consequences, pushing away potential partners.
On the whole, China is making effective use of its economic strength, which is having a dynamic impact on the regional balance of power.
The next president will need to “develop an answer” to China’s efforts to use its economic power to achieve its ambitions, Harris concluded.
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