Everything under heaven: Big China rattles region

China’s neighbors may have half-believed Beijing’s previous “smile diplomacy” and frequent reassurances that its rise posed no threat to regional peace and stability — but now everyone understands what hegemonic aspirations look like.

China’s military build-up and assertion of territorial claims all over the region is seen as a menace requiring a response; Washington is surely benefitting from this counterproductive posturing.

Analysts have long warned about China’s “string of pearls” strategy shifting the regional balance of power — a reference to its ambitions to build a network of ports in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar giving it Indian Ocean access. Now it looks more like China is stoking an arc of antagonism encompassing unhappy neighbors from Japan to India.

New Delhi has joined the growing list of nations with good reason to be worried about China’s more unabashed muscle-flexing. A Chinese platoon crossed their disputed border in April and bivouacked in eastern Kashmir for three weeks despite New Delhi’s remonstrations. Beijing’s sudden move caught everyone by surprise and sent shivers down the Indian spine.

The giant neighbors with billion-plus populations have had chilly relations since a 1962 border war that proved a one-sided rout; now as then, China enjoys a significant military advantage. Nonetheless, the April incursion seemed oddly timed just prior to new Premier Li Keqiang making India his first overseas visit, but perhaps Beijing is simply doing what big powers do because it imagines it can do so with impunity.

Certainly nationalism plays a significant role in China’s currently more belligerent posture in regional disputes.

After the tragic slaughter of pro-democracy demonstrators near Tiananmen Square in Beijing on June 4, 1989, a Chinese Communist Party desperate for legitimacy promoted patriotic education in the 1990s. This learning aroused nationalistic anger among younger Chinese about the victimization and injustices suffered before the 1949 revolution; the CCP’s subsequent reign of terror and devastating policy blunders are conveniently overlooked.

The so-called “century of humiliation” of a weak China at the mercy of foreign forces is a constant goad to national pride. Now there is also a renewed nationalism pumping pride in China’s economic miracle. Consequently, an ascendant China is trying to regain lost dignity by assertively challenging a status quo it views as having been imposed when it was enfeebled.

But even if the nationalistic impulses are clear, they don’t explain the whole story.

The degrading saga of humiliation has etched a deep-seated suspicion in China that its enemies are eager to keep it down and prevent it from getting its due. It’s perhaps overstating things to call it a national paranoia, but beneath the newly brazen feistiness lurks an injured pride and anxiety that the onward and upward trajectory won’t last — and that the status-quo powers are working overtime to undermine China’s aspirations.

In fact the realization of China’s regional hegemony in Asia, eclipsing the United States, seems only a matter of time, but growing problems at home increase the temptations of distractions abroad. Frustrated rising powers can be radicalized by perceived intransigence with tragic consequences; Japan in the 1930s comes to mind.

Meiji Japan (1868-1912) followed the Western recipe for success, modernizing the economy, creating an effective bureaucracy, strengthening its military and embracing imperialist expansion. Victories over China and Russia just before and after the turn of the century, leading to colonies in Taiwan and Korea, respectively, punctuated Japan’s rise and served notice of its ambitions.

But after trying to work within the prevailing post-World War I international order despite a succession of racist humiliations, the hammer blow of the Great Depression discredited moderates and made aggression seem plausible and necessary; Tokyo aggressively lashed out from 1931 until defeat in 1945.

In the case of China, it is worth recalling Henry Kissinger’s dictum: Even paranoids have enemies. The so-called Arc of Freedom and Prosperity promoted by Shinzo Abe when he was prime minister first time around in 2007 elicited a lukewarm regional response as it was seen to target China. Beneath the palaver about shared values, there lurked an agenda of containment that was not only evident to Beijing.

However, in the intervening years regional attitudes have warmed to that agenda because China has transformed itself into a convincing bogeyman.

From Beijing’s perspective, U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategic pivot toward the Asia-Pacific, along with the U.S.-brokered Trans-Pacific Partnership, seem part of a broader pattern to isolate and contain China while preserving the regional status quo. It looks like a new Cold War brewing — one that encourages China’s suspicions and belligerence in ways that justify the containment agenda.

Treating nations as threats and enemies tends to be self-fulfilling and narrows opportunities for fruitful engagement and collaboration.

Territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines have aroused suspicions that China wants to remake the South China Sea into Lake China. Its coopting of Cambodia during an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in 2012 — to block a joint declaration about the disputes — sowed further distrust, leading Indonesia to publicly acknowledge earlier this year that it, too, challenges China’s grandiose claims. Beijing’s escalation of the territorial standoff with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is thus not an isolated contretemps.

China’s efforts at building “soft power” have been overshadowed by resentment against its commercial dominance and unexemplary corporate behavior. As The Economist points out, the most popular action by Myanmar President Thein Sein has been the suspension of a large Chinese-supported hydroelectric project. Conversely, Aung San Suu Kyi’s aura took a hit when she supported a controversial Chinese copper-mine venture.

All around Asia, with the possible exception of Singapore, China is seen more as a menace or cash cow than a desirable partner.

And now Chinese scholars are laying claim to Okinawa. This seems over the top, even among Chinese. The Wall Street Journal reported sarcastic comments on Weibo, China’s Twitter, stating, “Everything under heaven belongs to us” — while another opined, “Are we as unhinged as North Korea? Why don’t we take back Mongolia while we’re at it?” Indeed, why not?

Big China is unsettling because nationalism needs an enemy. In the nascent Cold War they may have found one. Former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara deserves credit for shifting public attitudes and discourse rightward in Japan by provoking China with his inflammatory scheme to purchase the disputed islets. This maneuver panicked former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda into nationalizing them — an ill-advised move that further stoked bilateral tensions.

As a result, the December 2012 Diet election was not the anticipated referendum on nuclear energy after a summer of mass anti-nuclear demonstrations. Instead, the campaign focused on the China threat and the maladroit management of national security and the economy by Noda’s ruling Democtratic Party of Japan.

The resulting relaunch of Abe’s political career owes much to a pugnacious Beijing inadvertently supporting his agenda on constitutional revision and national security; he has returned the favor by pushing nationalist buttons among the Chinese.

But this is not a desirable dynamic of reciprocity. Novelist Haruki Murakami likens patriotism to getting hammered on cheap booze — because it leaves a bad hangover despite feeling good during the party.

China’s new leadership and a resurgent Abe are boogying to the jingoistic beat — and what more could Abe wish than China upping the ante with dreams of Okinawa?

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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