President Xi Jinping of China has pledged that no matter how strong his country’s economy becomes, China “will never seek hegemony, expansion or sphere of influence.” And during a speech to the United Nations Office in Geneva in January, Xi said the world’s largest countries should treat smaller countries as equals instead of imposing their will on these states.

And in an earlier keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Xi also called for — and portrayed China as a champion of — a rules-based international order. And in early March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress that China is a “responsible country” which will “forever be committed to equity and justice.”

But it seems not everybody is persuaded by the rhetoric of China’s leaders; among the doubters is US Senator John McCain. Talking at the US Studies Center at the University of Sydney last month, the Republican senator from Arizona and 2008 presidential candidate said: “[A]s China has grown wealthier and stronger, it seems to be acting more and more like a bully.”

According to McCain, who is chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, China “is asserting vast territorial claims that have no basis in international law. And it is using its trade and investment as tools to coerce its neighbors.”

Militarization of the South China Sea denounced

And in remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), in Singapore on June 3, US Defense Secretary James Mattis strongly criticized China’s “construction activities” and “militarization” in the South China Sea, its “disregard for international law,” “contempt for other nations’ interests, and its efforts to dismiss non-adversarial resolution of issues.”

The belief that China behaves aggressively in the disputed waters is shared by Japan and Australia, Washington’s two key regional allies.

Mattis, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada and Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne later issued a joint statement, in which they “expressed strong opposition to the use of coercion to unilaterally alter the status quo in the South China Sea, and their opposition to the use of disputed features for military purposes.”

At the Australia-US Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN) in Sydney on Monday, the US and Australia again criticized China’s construction and militarization of the artificial islands in the strategic seaway, emphasizing that Beijing cannot use its economic power to “buy its way out” of problems.

Most remarkably, in his keynote address to the Shangri-La security summit, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull implied that instead of playing by the rules, China is adopting a coercive posture by “isolating those who stand in opposition or are not aligned with its interests, while using its economic largesse to reward those toeing the line.”

China’s coercive actions could foster resentment

Turnbull warned such a stance is likely to be self-defeating because “a coercive China would find its neighbors resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space and look to counterbalance Beijing’s power by bolstering alliances and partnerships between themselves and especially with the United States.”

Instead, he suggested: “China [will] best succeed by respecting the sovereignty of others and in so doing build a reservoir of trust and cooperation with its neighbors.”

“If we are to maintain the dynamism of the region, then we must preserve the rules-based structure that has enabled it thus far,” Turnbull said. This “means cooperation, not unilateral actions to seize or create territory or militarize disputed areas,” he told the audience of defense ministers, military officials and experts from the Asia-Pacific region.

Bloomberg reported that Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein hailed Turnbull’s speech, calling it realistic and pragmatic. But Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said Turnbull’s criticism of China’s regional activities was not strong and direct enough. The former diplomat was quoted as saying that Turnbull “was trying to be diplomatic towards the Chinese, but he should have been more direct.”

The inference is that the idea that China is the benign, responsible and law-binding power that Xi Jinping vowed in Davos and Geneva or that Li Keqiang claimed it was later has failed to convince the US, Japan, Australia and other countries in the region.

Evidently, China’s contentious claims and actions in the South China Sea are a key reason why Australia and other regional states do not believe the rhetoric.

Evidently, China’s contentious claims and actions in the South China Sea are a key reason why Australia and other regional states do not believe the rhetoric.

China’s economic retaliation against South Korea for installing THAAD, a US missile-defense system, could be another reason to support the contention that Beijing does not always practice — or even does the opposite of — what it preaches.

Seoul decided to host the anti-missile shield because of its growing fear of North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat, demonstrated by ongoing missile tests in the North in the first five months of this year alone.

Indeed, any country that is faced with such an existential threat to its national security and survival from a bellicose, reckless and lawless neighbor should take steps to defend itself.

Yet, apparently China does not see it that way. Worse still, instead of using its leverage to stop its communist ally’s hostile and destabilizing behavior — the fundamental source of the problem — Beijing has resorted to economic retribution to hurt South Korea.

China’s campaign against South Korea goes against Xi Jinping’s claim that: “When neighbors are in trouble, instead of tightening his own fences, one should extend a helping hand to them.”

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called China’s punitive actions against South Korea troubling and underlined that “it is not the way for a regional power to help resolve what is a serious threat to everyone.”

‘A nation that’s not worthy of its size’

During a visit to Washington last month as new South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s personal envoy, Hong Seok-hyun was quoted as saying his country now “realized that China is a nation that’s not worthy of its size [and it] could be a menace to us.”

For Beijing, Seoul’s deployment of THAAD disrupts “regional strategic equilibrium” and undermines its “strategic security.” If it truly believes so, it should also carry out some similar retaliatory measures against the US because Washington sought to install this US-operated anti-missile system. Beijing did not dare to hit back against the world’s biggest economic and military power, targeting South Korea because it is a much smaller and weaker neighbor and depends on China economically.

Its economic reprisal against South Korea, which is also seen as violating World Trade Organization rules, further supports the observation that China is not a law-respecting power. More significantly, it reinforces the belief that Beijing is willing to use its vast economic advantage to isolate, intimidate or punish “those who stand in opposition or are not aligned with its interests.”

It also fosters doubt that the Middle Kingdom truly treats its smaller neighbors as equals as pledged by Xi Jinping.