Hong Kong [China], Dec. 6 : It was John Lydgate, a 15th century poet monk, who said, "You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time." China currently finds itself in this position, with few friends being gained but many more lost.
Indeed, some might consider that China has been facing something of a crisis in terms of its external relations in 2016.
A low point was the comprehensive slamming of Chinese actions and claims in the South China Sea, and the debunking of its myth of "indisputable sovereignty", when the Permanent Court of Arbitration released its findings in July.
China tried to shake off this highly critical report by going on the offensive, attacking the court's impartiality and jurisdiction, and simultaneously engaging in military posturing in the South China Sea.
However, it also resulted in a standoff with ASEAN, Japan and the USA over their backing of the court's decisions.
The latest diplomatic spat concerned Singapore, with the Chinese authorities lining up Hong Kong to detain nine armored personnel carriers belonging to the Singapore Army aboard a cargo ship heading back home from Taiwan.
This was clearly in response to Singapore's harder line on the illegality of China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, Singapore's ongoing utilization of military training areas in Taiwan, and its permission for the US military to use Singaporean naval and air bases.
At the same time, the incident allowed China to express its displeasure against Taiwan, and to perhaps drive a wedge between it and Singapore.
Relations with Taipei have soured after Tsai Ing-wen was elected in May. Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has traditionally maintained the stance that Taiwan is already an independent state, and Tsai has ignored the 1992 Consensus as a basis for her dealings with China.
This infuriated Beijing, for the latter views the Consensus as the basis for 'one China'. President elect Donald Trump's fielding of a congratulatory call from Tsai on 3 December further added fuel to the fire.
It was the first time a sitting or elected US leader had talked to a Taiwanese president since 1979, and it abruptly broke established patterns of protocol.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a surprisingly mild-mannered response when he labeled it a "shenanigan by the Taiwan side".
He added, "The 'one China' policy is the cornerstone of a healthy China-US relationship. I hope this political foundation won't be disrupted or damaged." Nevertheless, China lodged a diplomatic protest with Washington.
A statement from Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said, "We have noticed relevant reports and lodged solemn representation with the relevant side in the United States.I must point out that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of the Chinese territory." It is difficult to know at this stage whether Trump is signaling a new approach to relations with Taiwan and China, or whether it was a mistake due to his inexperience in diplomatic affairs.
Whatever the case, China's ongoing campaign to undermine Taiwan and thwart it in the international arena will continue unabated.
Relations with Japan remain tense too. For example, in August numerous China Coast Guard vessels accompanying around 150 fishing boats swarmed into disputed waters under Japanese control near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Historically antagonistic Sino-Japanese relations are one of the most volatile in Asia, and Japan is now busy beefing up its armed forces to prevent Chinese intrusions into its airspace and maritime territory.
China has also turned on South Korea. Relations with Park Geun-hye were benevolent for a considerable period of time before Seoul acceded to a US offer to host a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile battery in South Korea.
The reason for the future stationing is to ostensibly thwart the threat from North Korean missile and nuclear weapon aspirations.
Since the THAAD deployment was announced in July, an outraged Beijing has continually warned and cajoled South Korea because it believes THAAD's integral AN/TPY-2 radar would give the US long-range coverage into China, thus reducing the effectiveness of its ballistic missile arsenal.
China appears not to recognize the serious threat that South Korea faces from Kim Jong-un. Indeed, it has exerted minimal influence or pressure on North Korea to curb its missile program. Rather, all it has done is vociferously criticize Seoul for considering this deployment, and complained that the USA has driven a wedge between Sino-ROK relations.
China is instead concerned to make sure North Korea remains stable so that its own border with the country is not threatened.
China has verbally sparred with countries like Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Vietnam remains on edge about China's behavior in the South China Sea too. The list could go on, but it is sufficient to say that China is ruffling many feathers and straining relationships with its complaints against others for any perceived criticisms.
Relations with India remain stable, although China's military could press harder along the border to test Indian resolve at any point in the future.
Amongst ASEAN, only Cambodia and Laos have actively supported China. Cynics might say this could be put down to these low-income countries enjoying tremendous financial aid from China.
China has made progress, however. Malaysia has done something of an about face, with under-pressure Prime Minister Najib Razak enjoying a sense of acceptance from Beijing's welcoming arms.
Thailand has also been growing strategically closer to China as well, with the latter swiftly filling the political vacuum left by the USA's displeasure at Thailand's coup in 2014.
Beijing has succeeded to some degree in wooing the Philippines, but this is only because of the eccentric proclivities of the newly elected Rodrigo Duterte who has bones to pick with the USA.
Nevertheless, Manila showed it will not capitulate over the South China Sea issue, refusing China's offer to start bilateral talks on the precondition that it ignore the court's ruling.
Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay recounted, "They said if you will insist on the ruling, discussing it along those lines, then we might be headed for a confrontation.But I really honestly feel that this is something they have to make on a public basis, but I also sensed there was room for us to talk very quietly using backdoor channeling." Pakistan remains a vital friend, perhaps the most solid of all.
They make odd bedfellows, one an atheist communist regime and the other an Islamic republic. China continues to invest heavily in Pakistan, particularly via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that will give China strategic access to the Indian Ocean.
Recently a Pakistani naval officer suggested China would deploy submarines to guard Gwadar port and nearby sea lanes.
Significantly, China is also making strategic moves in Central Asia, often under the guise of its all-encompassing One Belt, One Road initiative.
It has been pushing for closer security cooperation with Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to a recent report from The Jamestown Foundation entitled 'Beijing encroaching on Moscow's military dominance in Tajikistan'.
In late October, for example, 10,000 troops from the People's Liberation Army and National Army of Tajikistan conducted a five-day counterterrorism exercise in Tajikistan.
The report's author noted, "According to Tajikistani and Russian security experts, Beijing's growing military activity in Central Asia is highly unusual.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, China has promoted its economic interests in this region, but it had always maintained a largely invisible military presence." Is China positioning itself as a regional counterweight to Russia, which leads the six-state Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO)? Indeed, Tajikistan is home to Russia's largest overseas military base, with an agreement guaranteeing it will remain there till 2042.
Dushanbe is experiencing a deteriorating security situation along its southern border with Afghanistan, as well as facing threats from banned radical Islamist movements.
Indeed, a quadripartite meeting (China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan) of armed forces leaders in August resulted in a pledge to form a coalition to bolster counterterrorism and enhance regional security.
This includes setting up a bilateral counterterrorism center in Dushanbe, plus Beijing's promise of USD70 million in military assistance to Kabul.
Russia sees Central Asia as its traditional stamping ground, and any inroads by China will be viewed with suspicion.
However, to date Moscow has not publicly protested China's increased security engagement with Tajikistan.
Russia and China claim to enjoy "special relations" but much mutual mistrust remains. The Jamestown Foundation author noted, "Many countries like Tajikistan, which suffer from enormous socio-economic problems, strongly favor establishing closer ties to China.
Unlike Russia, which is itself struggling with an economic crisis, China is more generous when it comes to investing in foreign countries' domestic economies and building up their local infrastructure.
And in terms of military assistance, China has already spent (Dollar) 15 million to construct apartments for military officers in Dushanbe." Chinese investment in Tajikistan remains minor compared to that from Russia, but it is a growing area of strategic cooperation.
The report concluded, "Either way, the quadrilateral China-Tajikistan-Pakistan-Afghanistan military coalition will likely be a stepping-stone for Beijing's future military expansion in the region.
As such, it can serve as a long-term lever for China to diminish Russia's overall influence in Central Asia.
Certainly, China is concerned about extremism among its Muslim population concentrated in the western province of Xinjiang, including violence spilling over from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With its greater economic investments in Central Asia, China also has an understandable desire to protect these.
Incidentally, at a press conference on 30 November, China's Ministry of National Defense denied its vehicles or personnel had entered Afghanistan as reported in some media accounts.
These were "inconsistent with the fact" apparently. It is notable that Chinese weapon manufacturers are making striking inroads into Turkmenistan, another Central Asian republic.
At a recent Independence Day parade in the capital Ashkhabad, the armed forces showed off FD-2000 long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM), which was China's first export of the HQ-9 system.
Turkmenistan also fields the medium-range KS-1S (HQ-12) and short-range FM-90 (HQ-7) SAMs. The country also owns associated Chinese-manufactured YLC-2 and YLC-18 radars. One surprise, recorded by UK-based defence publisher Shephard Media, was the appearance of a WJ-600A/D unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) carrying two CM-502KG air-to-surface missiles in Turkmenistan's parade.
This is the first known export of the jet-powered WJ-600. The country also owns the smaller CH-3A, another type of armed UAV. Why has China been willing to tread on so many toes throughout the past year? Andrei Chang, writing in the December issue of Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, said, "Problems within the Chinese Communist party are becoming very intense, especially power struggles among different factions, complicated by an economic slowdown and other social issues.As such, Xi Jinping needs more outside enemies." Chang quoted the precedent of Mao Zedong in 1969, where he demanded "all peoples of the world rise up and defeat the American imperialists", as well as attacking Damansky Island on the Soviet border.
Mao deliberately confronted two superpowers simultaneously while he conducted a purge of his party. China has clearly gained the confidence to stand up for its own interests and to bear antagonism on multiple fronts at the same time.
This is likely to be more than just a desire to divert the populace's attention, however, for China will not relent on any core strategic interest even if it means upsetting neighbors.
Indeed, sometimes it even appears that China does not care if it cannot please any of the people any of the time.