China’s assertiveness has alarmed many of its neighbours. Does a foot stamping foreign policy risk creating a counter-coalition?
China ushered in the year of the rabbit in a buoyant mood. Prices of high-end commodities rose sharply – not, it seems, because of a spike in food prices, but because there are so many people with spare cash to spend. Internationally, meanwhile, China’s rapid recovery from the global financial crisis, its successful test of the J-20 stealth plane, and the achievements of its athletes and artists have all served to create an image of China as the power to emulate in much of the world.
This optimistic mood has been reflected in China’s increasingly assertive behaviour on the international stage. China has moved from being a rule-breaker in the 1950s – one trying to overturn the world order – to a rule-maker in the 21st century, seeking to modify the world order in ways meant to ensure its continued prosperity. And, while there are certainly similarities between the two periods, there is also a crucial difference – China now has the economic and military power to back up its aspirations.
As is to be expected when a state gains power rapidly, the international community has reacted to China’s rise with a mix of envy and fear, as well as admiration. Beijing hasn’t been shy about taking advantage of its new clout – and most states have been quick to comply. Last September, for example, the Japan Coast Guard took a Chinese fishing boat captain into custody after his vessel rammed
two of its ships. Beijing demanded – and got – his release. Among the pressures Beijing brought to bear were a cessation of rare earth exports
to Japan (since resumed on a reduced basis); subjecting Japanese exports to agonizingly slow inspection procedures at customs checkpoints; and the arrest of several Japanese nationals – all enough to pressure Japan to comply with its demands. Just to be sure, China also announced that henceforth its own ships would patrol the areas near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are claimed by China but held by Japan.
It’s not only Japan that has fallen foul of China’s assertiveness. Beijing has forbidden Vietnamese fishermen
from entering an area it contests jurisdiction over, and has also become more active in pressing its border disputes with India. Indeed, Indian analysts saw a coded message for their country when, two days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was to arrive in New Delhi, Gen. Lo Yuan stated that China must recover territories ‘looted’ by its neighbours.
Citing the disconnect between the Chinese having the second highest gross domestic product in the world and what he termed the as yet unresolved issue of national unification, Lo also implicitly questioned the wisdom of his country’s declared policy of a peaceful rise: ‘some people like to resort to peaceful means to solve all questions (but) we have to think of potential dangers in times of peace…Some army personnel are becoming slack (and) too accustomed to this comfortable pacifism.’