Unbowed China wobbles in diplomatic test

2010-09-30Asia Times

BEIJING - Consider it, if you wish, a stress test, like those performed in laboratories to check the strength of concrete. How will it react if it is under some strain? How much weight can it bear, and what will it do under too much weight? Will it bend or break?

China, under the stress test of one of its fishing boats captured by a Japanese patrol near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, almost crumbled. Thus it put a big question mark on the already very complicated issue of ties with its neighbors and the rest of the world.

When things were still very unclear and the Japanese authorities were still holding the Chinese captain of the boat captured, China arrested four Japanese filmmakers, investigating them for espionage. Shortly after, Tokyo released the captain and the expected process should have been that the Chinese would release the filmmakers and put an end to the mess. But Beijing didn't do that and pressed on as if it were looking for revenge: it asked Japan for an apology and compensation.

Can Japan apologize and offer compensation? Tokyo claims the Senkaku are its territory, and its navy has been patrolling the area for years, whether they have the right to do so or not. In the case, Japan was within its rights to warn the Chinese boat off and arrest the captain when it rammed, intentionally or unintentionally, two Japanese Coast Guard boats. For Tokyo to offer apologies and compensation would be to admit that the Senkaku do not belong to Japan. Japan would essentially be caving in to China's territorial requests just the day after it was overtaken by China's gross domestic product (GDP). No self-respecting nation could possibly do that.

Furthermore, China's requests are saying to the world: as soon as I leapfrog your GDP, I am going to look for reasons or excuses to enforce my claims. Wait until I am economically a little bit bigger than you, and then I will settle all my old accounts with everybody. Isn't it scary for everyone?

Scary can be effective politically, provided people get scared - otherwise it backfires. In this case, neither Japan nor any neighbor was frightened by China. Tokyo arguably buttressed its claim to the Senkaku by bringing in the US, which said it would fulfill its alliance obligations if Japan were attacked by China over the Senkaku.

Moreover, the US and South Korea have started naval maneuvers, which had been suspended because of "bad weather". And on September 26, Japan also asked China for reparations because of damage caused to its patrol boats by the Chinese fishing boat.

What can China do? Further escalate tensions with Japan? This would also backfire, as it would rally more countries around Japan. And it would progressively isolate China, since Japan would certainly not buckle, and other countries would come to be less intimidated by China's bullying. Things could easily spin out of control. Or China could suck it up, fumble for a solution, and then strive to mend fences and just accept looking like a fool. This second case could leave many nationalists in China very dissatisfied and eager to settle accounts with rulers perceived as weaklings.

Either scenario is bad enough even without considering mounting tensions abroad. Washington is growing concerned about China's recent limitation on the export of rare-earth minerals, something that already has Japan very worried. The US is also more and more frustrated about its so far vain efforts to get a sizeable appreciation of the yuan versus the dollar.

If this were to happen, the US trade deficit would not be resolved, since the US would still import a lot, but its sources could partly change. Many developing countries, presently suffering from trying to compete with China, upheld by the weak yuan, would be grateful to America for having forced Beijing's hand. Partially relieved of competition from the cheap Chinese yuan, these countries could gain by exporting more to America and perhaps in time also challenge some Chinese industries.

Meanwhile, the request for reparations from Japan cast a gloomy light on the whole Senkaku incident. As Beijing asked for reparations, wasn't it really trying to set up the whole incident to push its territorial claims? Isn't the move really aggressive, despite the vaunted official theory of "peaceful rise"?

What is the net result so far for China? It looks scary, but it may not be so. Is it a paper tiger, or a real one? In the first case, it can be shrugged off, in the second case it must be caged, if not eliminated.

Was any of this China's intention? Was it trying to scare anybody? Possibly it was just venting its anger over an incident that it didn't expect and that spiraled out of control. Last week, Beijing restrained anti-Japanese demonstrations and reined in public anger over the captain's arrest.

Yet, at a certain point, like in a failed stress test, China cracked and extended its agony over the incident by introducing the request of reparations, when everything should have been finished. Why did China do it?

Like in all stress tests, one can decide to improve the resistance of the material, and then decide to investigate the reasons for the cracking and fix the material's faults. Or it can be happy with the result knowing that, after a certain amount of pressure, China will simply and predictably crack.

China now confronts a double dilemma. First, should it try to get out of the dangerous vice of being seen like a paper tiger? Or maybe Beijing is happy with the vice.

Second, it must improve its stress resistance to internal or external pressures. Or, again, maybe China is happy with having the whole world know the exact cracking point of its system.

My personal wild guess is that Beijing is not happy (as it should not be) with the results of the incident, but fixing it will need some deep soul-searching about strategies and tactics.

The incident signaled the beginning of the unraveling for China of a state of international benign goodwill surrounding its growth and development. That period began after 9/11, when the US and the world turned their attention away from Beijing's economic and political expansion and toward fundamentalist Islam.

Beijing should also perhaps revamp, relaunch and refocus its strategy of "peaceful rise" if it still believes in it. China can hardly expect global lenience and liberalness as the sheer size of its economy and population casts a long shadow over the future of the world and its post-Cold War order.

Meanwhile, the fundamental Islamist threat is shrinking, the economic crisis is not over, and having a nice, big traditional enemy could solve many issues for the hawks hovering all over the world scavenging for war. (2010-09-30 Asia Times)


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