China Power

China’s Welcome Backtracking?

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China Power

China’s Welcome Backtracking?

After a year of tension with its neighbours, is China starting to soften its foreign policy and military tone?

About this time last year, Georgetown University professor and Asia watcher Robert Sutter wrote a piece for us on the future of the United States in the Pacific. What’s interesting is not so much his conclusion that talk of the US demise in the region was premature, but that there was space for such an article at all.

Back then, Sutter wrote:

‘It may be a controversial view among some observers, but this author believes that the United States is well positioned to maintain its dominance through the next decade, and that any assessment of decline must be measured against four important yardsticks of US strength’.

He also noted the strength of China’s trade and investment relationships, and mentioned China’s ‘effective’ diplomacy.

What a difference a year makes. Indeed, fast forward less than 12 months and it’s difficult to imagine anyone disputing that the United States won’t be heading for the Pacific exit any time soon, and there’d surely be few takers for the notion that China’s diplomacy has been effective. In fact, I’m sure many would agree with me that in the long term, it has in fact been extremely counter-productive, not least from a Chinese point of view by drawing several countries in the region (Vietnam, India, Japan, to name a few) closer to the United States.

I’ve written regularly about the risks to China’s image overseas with its overbearing diplomacy, sweeping claims to large swathes of the South China Sea and scant regard for its neighbours’ feelings—including detaining Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters and the well-publicized spat with Japan in September, during which it responded furiously when it found out one of its own fishermen had been detained.

On top of this, there’s been the angry response to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to human rights dissident Liu Xiaobo, the unseemly pressure placed on other countries not to attend the ceremony (looking at the non-attendees, it’s a list China would probably have been better not being on) and the weak response to the sinking of the South Korean vessel the Cheonan.

We’ve also had reports in The Diplomat on environmental frustration in Thailand over China’s damming of the Mekong river, and next week we have a report coming from tiny Laos on growing tensions over what’s perceived as an influx of Chinese workers for construction and entertainment projects.

Henry Kissinger, who was so instrumental in the rapprochement between the United States and China in the early 1970s, when as national security advisor he helped orchestrate the groundbreaking summit between Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai, described diplomacy as ‘the art of restraining power’. Too often this year, China has shunned such a view, instead flexing its muscles at the first sign of opposition. In the short-term, this may have given it the results it craved—Japan quickly handed the trawler captain back and almost 20 countries boycotted the Nobel ceremony.

But is China, perhaps recognizing that it’s actually strengthening the circle of opposition around it that it so fears, starting to backtrack a little?

One sign came in the quiet resumption of rare earth metals to Japan. Shipments of the minerals—a key resource for technology and green energy manufacturing Japan—were halted at the height of tensions over the detained trawler captain. China tried to argue, somewhat unconvincingly, that it was a coincidence that all of its exporting firms decided to spontaneously halt shipments. But regardless, Tokyo confirmed late last month that shipments had been resumed.

And yesterday, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that ties with Japan had shown signs of improvement, due to ‘the many meetings and contacts.’

The official Xinhua News Agency reported Jiang Yu as stating that:

‘Attaching great importance to the bilateral relations, China is willing to work with Japan to promote the mutually strategic relationship to new highs’.

According to Xinhua, she went on to say that ‘both sides should act in accordance with the principles of the four political documents, and maintain the healthy and stable development of the relationship.’ (The four political documents are: the China-Japan Joint Statement on Comprehensively Advancing Strategic and Reciprocal Relations, the Sino-Japanese Joint Statement, the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship and the Sino-Japanese Joint Declaration).

China should certainly bear the spokeswoman’s words in mind—many meetings and contacts are indeed a good thing, which is why it’s something of a mystery why China is so quick to consider breaking off military ties when the US, especially, annoys it.

The Foreign Ministry comments on improved Sino-Japanese ties came the same day that China, South Korea and Japan inked an agreement on establishing a three-way secretariat for co-operation—aimed at improving communication and collaboration between the three nations—in Seoul next year.

Writing in Indian Decade yesterday, Rajeev noted a similar phenomenon with Sino-India ties, despite the clear message India was sending with its refusal to bow to Beijing’s pressure over sending a representative to the Nobel ceremony.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been in India this week, and although the focus has been largely on trade (the two countries set a bilateral trade target of $100 billion by 2015, compared with $60 billion this year, and inked a joint communiqué agreeing to boost co-operation on the environment, telecoms and finance), there was also some strategic progress. In a meeting yesterday between Wen and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the two agreed on annual visits to the other country by their foreign ministers, an announcement that followed the launch this week of a hotline between the two leaders.

Speaking yesterday evening, Singh said: ‘Our shared interest in creating a more equitable world order has transformed our relations beyond its bilateral dimension to a strategic and global partnership. There is enough space in the world for both India and China to grow and fulfill the development aspirations of their respective people’.

And, back to where I began all this, there have also been some positive signs with what is still the major Pacific power—the United States. This week, the People’s Daily quoted Chinese analysts as welcoming the resumption of military-to-military ties, which were broken off after the United States announced a major arms sale to Taiwan at the start of the year.

The resumption comes ahead of the expected visit by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates to China in the middle of next month, and is a welcome change from earlier this year, when Gates told delegates at the Shangri-La Dialogue that he believed the PLA had hindered his attempts to secure a visit to Beijing while he was in Asia.

The shift in tone has been welcomed in Washington, with US Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Michele Flournoy noting to reporters last week that: ‘We have seen some gradual increases in China’s transparency and also in their candour with us…While I won’t say we agreed on every issue, where we did differ, we had a very candid and frank and productive exchange of views.’

Well, at least they are talking. It’s a welcome end to a turbulent year that China appears to see it in its own best interests to be doing so.