Features | Politics | East Asia

What China Needs to Learn

Japan wasn’t blameless in the recent spat. But Beijing must understand that great powers sometimes need to show restraint.

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).

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.

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First and foremost, Beijing must understand that there’s a double-standard in the world that judges great powers differently. Countries with outsized economic and military clout are simply held to a much higher standard. The United States under George W. Bush found this out a bit too late. In the case of China, there’s an additional double standard: autocratic governments are more harshly judged in the court of the international press and opinion than democratic governments. This can be very unfair since in some instances democracies may be responsible for initiating the conflict (such as Georgia’s provocative actions against Russia in 2008 and Japan’s detention of the Chinese captain in this case). What these double standards mean is that China should exercise extra precaution in flexing its muscles even when it believes it’s in the right.

Another lesson to be learned is that the tactics of ‘shock and awe’ employed by China in forcing Japan to back down is a wasteful—if not counter-productive—use of valuable leverage. Instead of gradually ratcheting up pressure on Tokyo, Beijing applied overwhelming punitive measures all at once.  By doing so, China not only ‘shocked and awed’ Tokyo, but frightened everybody else.

The final lesson China should learn is to think empathetically. For a country known for its desire to ‘save face,’ China must be particularly sensitive to its adversary’s need for saving face. In its confrontation with Tokyo, Beijing curiously was oblivious to the desirability of giving Tokyo a face-saving exit. One could interpret this as Chinese leaders’ capitulation to rising nationalist sentiments. But the more likely explanation may be pure hubris. Having just surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, China may feel that it should start acting like a superpower. Had Chinese leaders viewed the crisis from the perspective of their Japanese counterparts, they would probably have acted differently.

Fortunately, not all is lost. This incident has damaged Sino-Japanese ties, but not irrevocably. By toning down its rhetoric and dropping the demand that Japan apologize for the incident, Beijing can send a reconciliatory signal to Tokyo.

But the real challenge for China lies in the future: as Chinese power grows, so will the temptation to flout it. China flunked one test. Let’s hope that the lessons learned from this will help China do better in the future.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and an adjunct senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace