The measure of a great power is not how it flexes its muscles, but how it refrains from doing so. But if that’s the standard by which we judge China’s handling of its recent confrontation with Japan over the detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler in waters around the disputed Diaoyu/Shenkaku Islands, Beijing has clearly failed the test.
Instead of demonstrating its restraint and patience, the Chinese government needlessly escalated tensions. Even though it succeeded in forcing Tokyo to back down and release the detained captain, China gravely damaged its ties with Japan and sullied its image as a responsible great power.
To be sure, Japan wasn’t blameless (despite the portrayal of Japan as a victim in this diplomatic brawl by a sympathetic Western media). Indeed, Tokyo’s decision to detain and charge the captain was ill-considered and set off the confrontation with Beijing in the first place. Considering the hyper-sensitivity routinely displayed by Beijing on issues of sovereignty and territorial disputes, Japan’s best course of action after its patrol boats intercepted the Chinese trawler would have been quick expulsion—of everybody. (Although that said, in light of their penchant for blunders of all kinds, Japanese leaders perhaps deserve some slack).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
However, Beijing’s reaction to Tokyo’s misstep was totally disproportionate: it cut off official exchanges at the ministerial level, disinvited Japanese young people to the Shanghai Expo and imposed an effective ban on the shipments of critical rare earth materials to Japan. The Chinese Premier also directly called on Japan to release the captain ‘immediately’ and refused to meet Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan at the United Nations in New York. Thus, instead of pursuing a quiet diplomatic route to seek the release of the captain, the Chinese government raised the stakes to a level that ensured an outcome that would make Japan lose face and Beijing look like a bully.
With the world anxiously watching what kind of great power China is going to be, Beijing needs to reflect on its own mistakes and learn valuable lessons that could help it reassure its jittery neighbors and avoid making similar costly mistakes in the future.