Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is intimately involved in China's plan for Afghanistan. Photo: AFP

The West cannot match China’s economic prowess and largesse in its battle for the hearts and minds of Southeast Asia. So it is weaponizing its values. Indeed, US President Joe Biden said: “I think we’re in a contest not with China per se but a contest with autocratic governments around the world as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in the rapidly changing 21st century.” 

Despite his generalization, it is clear that China is the prime target. The Global Times, which reflects the thinking of China’s leaders, acknowledged the challenge, saying the West is “playing the ideology and values card.” Prime arenas for this contest are the South China Sea and, by extension, Southeast Asia.

The West has made human rights, democratic values and the rule of law – aka the “international order” – its stock-in-trade and a dominant part of its foreign policy in Asia. Indeed, that distinguishes Western democracies from many other countries – especially China. 

But the values of its leader, the US, are losing their appeal. The hallmarks of its democracy – civil discourse, accepted norms and national unity – are in shambles. American democracy is now in the throes of an ugly, violence-laced, cultural civil war that has made it dysfunctional. 

China’s domestic values do not offer a particularly attractive alternative, but it can argue that at least it – in contrast – is stable. Moreover, most Southeast Asian countries do not much care how China treats its own citizens – and some are just as authoritarian and draconian and, like China, resent US criticism of their governing style.

Playing to this reality, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said, “We support ASEAN in upholding the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.” Because the “values card” in the abstract is increasingly proving to be ineffective, the US is operationalizing and “weaponizing” its values policy. 

Indeed, under US leadership and constant prodding, a loose coalition of democracies is forming against what they consider China’s unacceptable domestic abuses of its citizens and its coercive actions, especially in the South China Sea.

The Group of Seven and North Atlantic Treaty Organization expressed concern with its coercive behavior there. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was “concerned by China’s coercive policies, which stand in contrast to the fundamental values enshrined in the Washington treaty” like democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

The latter is a common code phrase used to criticize China’s illegal historic claims in the South China Sea and its failure to abide by an international arbitration panel’s decision against it. The Quad, an informal anti-China strategic grouping of the US, India, Japan and Australia, is also gaining momentum and may even expand. 

The Biden team is now backing its “values weapon” with its military. US Secretary of State Tony Blinken has said, “Our ability to be effective diplomats depends in no small measure on the strength of our military.” Indeed, Biden’s team is continuing the same Trumpian mixture of hypocrisy, demands, confrontation, and military intimidation in the South China Sea. 

Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of defense for the Indo-Pacific, Ely Ratner, has testified before Congress that “a combat-credible forward posture” is needed to “deter and if necessary, deny a fait accomplis” by China in the South China Sea. The US is considering creating a “standing [naval] force in the Western Pacific.”

According to Ratner, such a force would need “new operational concepts, modernized and high end ready forces, and capable allies and partners proficient in their war fighting roles.” The model may be NATO’s Standing Maritime Groups that were created to maintain a flexible presence in response to crises. 

It probably hopes the new force would include contributions from Japan, Australia, France and the UK. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi has called for European nations to increase their military involvement in the Indo-Pacific to constrain China’s behavior in the East and South China Seas.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison supports the concept. He urged an international effort to enforce an “open, inclusive, secure and resilient Indo-Pacific and a world order that favors freedom.” The coordination of Western military signaling in the South China Sea has already significantly increased

The danger, of course, is that enforcing these values globally may become a “whack a mole” process that overextends US and allied forces. Indeed, over time they could be bled to death by the proverbial “thousand cuts.”

Moreover, some US allies’ support for this values war is halfhearted. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proffered that “I probably speak for [Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison] when I say nobody wants to descend into a new cold war with China – we don’t see that as the way forward.” 

Also, much of Southeast Asia is unlikely to go along. Not only do many of their political and social systems not conform to Western values, the concept of ASEAN centrality will be submerged in this struggle between great powers.

China has made itself vulnerable to this new Western effort to isolate and constrain it.

Its fishing and coast-guard incursions in Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), its massing of fishing and maritime militia boats in Philippines-claimed waters, its new law authorizing its coast guard to use force to defend its disputed claims, and its provocations in Vietnamese claimed waters and in and over Malaysian-claimed waters have frightened its rival claimants. 

Indeed, its aggressive, arrogant and sometimes belligerent actions have undermined trust and pushed some Southeast Asian countries toward the US for protection. 

China has belatedly recognized the danger of a Western-led united front against it and is sending verbal and military warnings of it opposition. President Xi Jinping recently told the Politburo that China needs “to tell its story better and win the struggle to be more lovable…. It is necessary to make friends, unite and win over the majority, and constantly expand the circle of friends [when it comes to] international opinion.”

As one of its “Wolf Warriors,” Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye, said, “The public-opinion war is a strength of the West but a weakness for us.” Indeed, China needs to step up its English-language public diplomacy. It needs to be less aggressive and avoid providing opportunities for the West to criticize its behavior, especially in the South China Sea.

It needs to match its soothing words with actions. And it needs to make better use of the ample ammunition provided by the hypocrisy of the US and the West. This values war will be a long-drawn-out contest that requires a long-term effective public diplomacy strategy. It is about time China stepped up its game.

Portions of this piece appeared in a different piece with a different theme. 

Mark Valencia

Mark J Valencia is an internationally recognized maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. Most recently he was a visiting senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies and continues to be an adjunct senior scholar with the Institute. Valencia has published some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles.