Asia In A Tailspin: And The Menacing Assertiveness Of China


By Rajeev Sharma

The year 2010 will go down in the history as a year in which the world witnessed with shock and awe the menacing assertiveness of China in diplomatic, military, transnational infrastructure network and trade arenas that may well sow the seeds of the second cold war in not too distant a future. The chill in China’s bilateral relations with the United States, Japan and India reached an uncomfortable level in 2010 and each of these three countries started with long-term measures spanning vast and diverse fields with the sole aim of containing China. 2010 will be remembered in the world history as the year when China emerged as a replacement of the former Soviet Union to take on the US in every conceivable sphere of human activity.

Major world powers are bracing to deal with China’s assertive diplomacy (example: the Senkaku Islands spat between China and Japan); aggressive trade policies (examples: China’s refusal to appreciate its deliberately undervalued currency and its unofficial ban on export of rare earth metals to Japan and the West); and frenetic investments in military infrastructure and space militarization. China’s rise and its global implications is indisputably the biggest news story of 2010.

The unseemly haste shown by China in becoming a superpower has triggered off an international scramble and Asia has become a chess board of diplomatic moves, counter-moves and strategic maneuvers. India, largely perceived as an effective counter to China, has come centre stage for the international community in this great power game. Japan is another Asian giant that is being looked upon by the West to contain China. Japan is in a tailspin and it is a matter of when, not if, the Japanese will abandon their 65-year-old policy of non-militarization.

Other Asian powers — especially South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan, the bug bears for China – too are apprehensive of China’s intentions. Major world power and a P 5 nation, Russia, also has reasons to be wary of China, considering the deep forays that China has already made and is still making into Central Asia that Moscow treats as its exclusive area of influence.

China is seeking to achieve too much too soon, riding roughshod over the diplomatic and strategic concerns of everyone, whether near abroad or far abroad. As China is an Asian country, Asia is bearing the brunt of the Chinese power games. Asia is in a tailspin. The Asian strategic matrix is changing rapidly. All because the unprecedented aggressive strategic posturing by China in Asia points to one thing: China has finally buried Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “hide your capabilities and bide your time”.

If China has stirred up the hornet’s nest by its recent words and deeds and propelled virtually the rest of the world to start pregnant “how to deal with China” confabulations, it is the present Chinese leadership led by President Hu Jintao that is to be blamed.

In this context, one needs to see the comparatively recent Chinese over aggressive diplomacy when it comes to world leaders meeting the Dalai Lama. In 2008, China did away with its annual talks with the European Union for the first time in eleven years to retaliate against French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with him. This is documented in a recent study by authors from the University of Goettingen in Germany and published by the Social Science Research Network. The authors’ survey covered exports to China from 159 countries between 1991 and 2008. “Our empirical results support the idea that countries officially receiving the Dalai Lama at the highest political level are punished through a reduction of their exports to China,” said the authors using data from the United Nations and World Bank. They found that ‘official’ meetings between the Dalai Lama and the leadership of a country resulted in a cut in exports to China from that country of an average of 8.1 percent. This effect lasts about two years. The most interesting aspect of the findings is that that they have only held true since 2002, when Hu Jintao took office as president.

Strangely, the state-owned Chinese media has taken note of the Chinese predicament of “befriending the distant while alienating neighbours”. In a rare and unusual criticism of Chinese foreign policy, Chinese Communist Party-controlled “People’s Daily Online” carried a commentary on November 12, 2010, noting that while China’s relations with far-away powers in Europe were improving, its relations with immediate neighbours were “not cordial”. The opinion piece “China befriending the distant while alienating neighbors?” by Li Hongmei quotes an old Chinese proverb in this context: “a distant water supply is no good in putting out a nearby fire”.

A day before Li’s article, the Global Times published an editorial titled: “China needs to mitigate external friction.” It said: “Before China reaches a certain level of industrialization, it has to spare some efforts to deal with various disputes and conspiracies. In its neighborhood, China needs to make sure regional disputes over material benefits do not escalate into ideological confrontations.”

It is not just the case of China alarming its neighbours; its own citizens are getting alarmed by an increasingly assertive China. David Zweig, director of the Center on Environment, Energy and Resource Policy at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said many Chinese analysts are perplexed by the way China’s government and military are engaging with the world.

Zweig says: ‘These academics are deeply concerned. Even usually nationalistic, pro-government friends are hesitant to defend current policy. And they also struggle to explain wcademic told hy all this is happening. Is China feeling its oats? Or is it bravado that masks feelings of insecurity? In any case, the message is that for the first time in decades, Chinese foreign policy researchers see most of China’s external problems emanating from its own behaviour, rather than foreign efforts to contain China’s rise.” One academic told Zweig he could not figure out why, when China had secured the release by Japan of a detained fishing vessel captain in September, it continued to demand an apology.

Clearly, China is being looked at as a regional bully not just by the perplexed neighbours but also by its own citizens who dare not speak out. What has muddied the waters further is the role of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The PLA is increasingly being seen by Chinese observers as an entity that is increasingly pushing its own agenda. Sample the following quote from Zweig: “Chinese observers’ views of the military are also critical, and in some cases almost hostile. They all agree that the PLA has begun to act as an interest group, pushing its own agenda by having its officers appear on television, in military uniform, speaking out on foreign policy…This is a new phenomenon and one that makes civilians anxious.”

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist-author and commentator on strategic issues, international relations and terrorism. [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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