China’s Trouble with the Neighbors

BEIJING – China’s “good neighbor” policy is under unprecedented pressure; indeed, it is at its nadir since the Cold War’s end. One after another, frictions with neighboring countries have arisen recently.

From the territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea to tensions with Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand, relationships that were sound, if not always friendly, have now soured. Myanmar’s decision to shelve the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project shocked China. Likewise, the killing of 13 Chinese boat crewmen on the Mekong River in October serves as a stark reminder that China’s presumably peaceful southern land border, which has been untroubled for nearly 20 years, today resembles the most hostile sort of neighborhood.

China’s people and government are especially dismayed by the Mekong killings, which seemed to demonstrate, once again, the government’s inability to protect its citizens from being murdered abroad, despite the country’s newfound global status. As a result, two compelling questions have arisen: Why do China’s neighbors choose to neglect its interests? And why, despite China’s rise, do its authorities seem increasingly unable to secure Chinese lives and commercial interests abroad?

Chinese anxiety about these questions forms the atmosphere shaping Chinese policy. With Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fall from power in Libya, Chinese companies lost investments worth roughly $20 billion, which Libya’s new government has implied are unlikely to be recovered. Many Chinese were disquieted by their government’s decision to evacuate China’s citizens from Libya, and would have preferred a bolder effort to protect the countries’ commercial assets there.