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East Asia: How China benefits from restraint
What if Chinese nationalism is not the bogey it is so often made out to be? The general reaction outside the PRC to the current round of confrontations in the seas of East Asia is that they are all a result of the Chinese wanting to flex their muscles against their neighbours and to proclaim their national destiny. This fits a narrative developed by observers since the mid-1990s of the leadership whipping up nationalism as one of the regime’s compensations for its lack of electoral legitimacy and to further its underlying purpose of replacing the United States as the dominant strategic power in East Asia.
Who’s making trouble? There have certainly been outbursts, especially against Japan and in reaction to pro-Tibetan demonstrations before the 2008 Olympic Games. Beijing would certainly like more strategic leeway in its region, in particular a lessening of the constraints of the US-patrolled “island chain” stretching south from Japan.
But to see the present increase in tension simply through that lens is a distortion that carries dangers. Shintaro Ishihara, the Governor of Tokyo, has stirred the pot far more than anybody at the top in Beijing with his talk of buying disputed islands and building a port, telecommunications base and meteorological station there. “Think of Tibet,” he says in an extreme flight of fancy. “I don’t want Japan to end up as a second Tibet.” It was South Korea’s President Lee Yung-bak who visited another disputed group of islands early this month. And it was Taipei that sent coast guard vessels to escort a Taiwanese fishing boat making a protest trip to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. By contrast the Chinese who landed on the islands known as Senkaku to Japan and Diaoyu to China were activists from Hong Kong, some of whom, far from representing the PRC, are vocal critics of the regime, and they received no official support.
Control, control. True enough, some PLA hawks have made bloodthirsty remarks and Global Times issues dire warnings to any state that dares to cross China’s path. Yes, a couple of militants grabbed the flag from the car of the Japanese ambassador in Beijing at the weekend while a chauvinistic website beat the nationalist drum. But none of this represents national policy. If there is one thing the country’s leaders are intent upon, it is to prevent popular feeling from spilling over into uncontrolled demonstrations.
As the leadership transition approaches, no Chinese leader will wish to be painted as anything less than a true patriot, but the silence from the top has been striking. The PLA navy has shown its presence, especially off the Philippines, but has avoided serious clashes. The tussles over rights to islands in the South China Sea have not been allowed to interfere with the slow process of developing regional economic cooperation aimed at creating a free trade zone encompassing Japan, South Korea and the People’s Republic. (For subscribers, see report, 3 Jan 2012)
Trap for Washington. If it sticks to this approach, China may well reap dividends, as, for once, it is Japan that is forcing the pace for nationalistic domestic political reasons. A rift between Taiwan and Japan would obviously be in Beijing’s interest. Washington could be embarrassed if some of the vital struts of its “Pacific pivot” fall out. This would make it even more difficult to deepen the strategic alliance in East Asia in the face of China’s economic clout.
Beijing’s hard-line position was set out ahead of Hillary Clinton’s visit to the PRC this weekend in an article published by Xinhua which depicts the US as a as declining power that lacks “enough economic strength or resources to dominate the Asia-Pacific region.” The piece says Washington is creating “disturbances in the Asia-Pacific region” and wanting to “benefit from stirring up disputes among nations”, but will fail in its aims.
Focus on the economy. If this reflects official thinking, it indicates that Being accepts that, given its military inferiority, the economic slate is the one on which it should concentrate. We have wondered in the past if China has a coherent foreign policy but in this instance, doing little or nothing may be the way to reap dividends while counting on economic interests to trump strategic and maritime differences.