Regional disputes testing China’s regional ambitions

Thursday, 30 September 2010 05:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Reuters: The jarring noise reverberating across Asia is the sound of a region shifting gears, adjusting to the prospect of China growing bigger, bolder and possibly bossier as the United States looms less large.

It’s going to be a long and bumpy ride for Asia, not least in China itself, where internal doubts about how far to leverage the country’s growing economic might only serves to make the outlook more uncertain for its neighbours.

The fracas over a Chinese trawler captain caught by Japan in disputed seas was the latest of a string of disputes that have blown up into tests both of Beijing’s assertiveness and the rest of Asia’s willingness to go along or push back.

Capitals throughout the region are anticipating a new decade when China will be richer, more resource-hungry and more powerful, and when U.S. power weighs less relative to China’s.

Between 2010 and 2020, China’s economy will double in size from $5.1 trillion to $10.5 trillion, according the State Council Development Research Centre, a Chinese government think tank helping to write the country’s next development plan.

That expanding GDP will also bring a bigger military, and also a bigger appetite for resources and international respect.

Watching this staggering rise from their ringside seats, Asian nations are now busy trying to establish the boundaries – sometimes literal ones – to China’s future power.

“I have a sense that the trend is not just a short-term blip but might be a long-term, secular trend,” said Susan Shirk, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state responsible for Chinese affairs who now teaches at University of California in San Diego.

That shift has been going on for years. But it is now gathering momentum, heightening the risk of more fraught regional diplomacy and of small tiffs blowing up into crises.

It is not just China’s neighbours who need to judge how far and how fast the country wants to press its power: Beijing itself appears undecided and that feeds the region’s jitters.

Some in Beijing want a more robust diplomatic posture, especially after China sailed through the financial crisis while rich economies floundered, while others worry about hubris.

“China has not come to grips with how it wishes to use its new-found power and that does increase uncertainty among its foreign interlocutors,” said David Lampton, director of China studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington D.C.

“There is a good reason that Beijing has not conveyed its thinking to the outside world -- that is because there is a real debate going on in China itself about precisely how strong it is, how its new-found power should be employed, and what the risks of greater international involvement may be,” Lampton said in emailed comments made before China’s latest quarrel with Japan.

Meanwhile, some of China’s neighbours have turned more to the United States to hedge against Beijing, which has responded with heavy doses of criticism and military exercises that appeared aimed at the U.S. military presence in the region.

“There are a lot of moving parts here, but it would be wrong to focus only on Chinese assertiveness. That’s also drawing regional responses,” said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington D.C.

China could eventually step back from confrontation with Asian countries drawing closer to Washington, which remains the most powerful security presence in the region, said Glaser.

“I don’t think that there’s a sense in the Obama administration that China is becoming the predominant power,” she said in a telephone interview. “I think the Obama administration thinks that this has been a series of errors by China that will eventually cause them to be less assertive.”

Bigger, but how much bolder?

China appeared to come out ahead in the latest spat when Japan released the detained trawler captain.

But it was not content to leave it there and demanded an apology. The overseas edition of the official People’s Daily chided Tokyo on Monday that it could not rely on U.S. backing when Washington itself needs China’s economic help.

Chinese policymakers have always been acutely sensitive over territorial disputes, often seen as insulting remnants of the country’s past subjugation to colonising powers.

A bullish current of foreign policy thinking, coinciding with preliminary statistics showing China has edged past Japan to become world’s second-biggest economy, has encouraged greater assertiveness over such disputes.

“Currently, China has truly and undoubtedly entered the league of great powers, and it will inevitably shoulder a world leadership role with the mindset of a great power,” notes one of several recent Chinese books urging a pushier foreign policy.

China’s neighbours, however, have been responding to its rise in ways that put Beijing on edge.

Earlier this year, Southeast Asian states joined with the United States to press China to solve territorial disputes in the South China Sea multilaterally, an approach that irked Beijing, which does not like Washington wading into regional disputes.

The squabble over the sinking of a South Korean navy ship set Beijing against Seoul, which said the ship was certainly torpedoed by Chinese ally North Korea.

Japan has invoked its alliance with the United States in the row with China over islets in the East China Sea claimed by both.

While some around Asia see China as an emerging neighbourhood bully, some in Beijing cast their country as the beleaguered target of jealous regional rivals and the United States.

The recent disputes over the South China Sea, North Korea, and China’s yuan currency showed “the international factors constraining China have been constantly growing,” a Beijing-based scholar, Zhao Kejin, wrote last month in a Communist Party-run newspaper, the Study Times.

China has yet to invent a foreign policy formula that can mesh its growing weight with vows of serving as a harmless regional economic adhesive. Watch for more flare-ups between China and its neighbours as it grapples to find that formula.