SINOGRAPH Beijiing falls short of international vision
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - China seems not understand the grammar of political relations. Rather than dealing country by country, it needs to hook in the global dimension.
Chinese citizens and property are being targeted in Vietnam, a country with a very long history of animosity toward Beijing and recently angered by the alleged infringement of its territorial rights by a Chinese oil platform in disputed waters. New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been elected on a nationalist platform, and those with anti-Chinese sentiments in Asia hope he can bring closer cooperation in defense and intelligence with
Vietnam and Japan, clearly ready to organize some form of anti-Beijing coalition.
This may be excessive and only partly true, as both India and Vietnam may oppose China but are also eager to do business with the country. However in all these instances, Beijing is passive and unable to take a positive initiative. Why? Because, in a few words, Beijing does not understand the grammar and the logic of present international relations and deals with every problem and every country one by one, without a comprehensive vision.
This can be understandable, as this grammar is based on Western concepts. However, these are concepts accepted de facto by all, and if China wants to fight these concepts as long as fight all potential enemies, it gets itself in an impossible position.
The issue is huge, but let me sketch just a few brief points here.
The global dimension and grammar of international relations is determined by the dominant empire, which is now the American empire, started in continuity with English one, founded on grounds of the Spanish one, the first global empire, set off in the 1500s.
The archetype basis for all of them was the idea of justice and freedom and such, which later was embodied also in the modern concept of democracy. These assumptions are children of the concept of universal salvation and the notion from the Spanish Catholics of universal equality of all men independent of race or origin or the Protestant concept of universal natural righteousness. These ideas then took shape in the sense of equality between nations, balance of powers, comprehensive outlook to international issues, et cetera, forming the pillars of the modern process of globalization.
For decades, as China was admitted into the process of globalization, it could ignore these ideas, because the US had politically endorsed China to get its support at the time of the Cold War against the USSR and later in the war to terrorism after September 11. The same is true now for instance, mutatis mutandis, with Egypt, certainly not a paragon of justice but better than in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The US held its endorsement to China for decades but took it away in 2010, after the failure of the Copenhagen conference on the environment (see Copenhagen miscalculation, Asia Times Online, December 23, 2011). After that, it was enough that the US signaled that it was neutral on the issue of the South China Sea to cause all the territorial issues, thus far suppressed, to pop up around China. In a way, other countries understood that China was fair game, and the US would no longer take its side. The US would not go against China, but in a quarrel between China and any of its neighbors would simply stay aloof.
Without the US endorsement, China now needs to work now on three levels:
Regain at least part of the endorsement of the US - otherwise, everything will be harder;
Understand and fit in with the existing rules of international relations, and the legacy of thousands of years of Western tradition;
Build new ties with neighboring countries without going through the US.
Can China do it? Beijing will have to fully comprehend its predicament first, something that does not appear to have happened.
About three years ago, we published some sort of a joke about China and Vietnam (see Vietnam's Dr Strangelove
at war with the Mandarins, Asia Times Online, June 23, 2011). Now everything our Vietnamese Dr Strangelove wanted to happen has happened. Perhaps people in Vietnam took the joke seriously (as they should), and in China they did not. Now what can China do? Very little. Beijing is trapped. If it reacts, it proves it is a tiger, an animal to hunt down. If it does not react, it proves it is a paper tiger, an animal to laugh at.
Yet Vietnam is a smaller problem, while the bigger one for China is Japan. Japan itself has a huge problem: it cannot see its future. What will and can Japan be in 30 years? In a generation? It is very unclear. One clear possibility for its future so far is a repeat of its past - to reclaim its dominant role in Asia, or at least oppose the present rising star in the region, China.
Then, China should help Japan to find its future, with or without the contested Senkaku Islands. Japan will not disappear and can't return to being a vassal state of China. The past of China as the center of its limited sinified world is gone. Can Beijing build ties on equal standing with Tokyo? This could help Japan find its future with China and defuse the long-term tensions breeding short-term friction over the Senkaku.
The same is true now with Narendra Modi's India. Besides the business Modi may wish to do with Beijing, there is a long-term concern in India about what kind of ties India can develop with its large northern neighbor.
To digest all of this, China would need time; however, the recent Vietnamese events prove that perhaps there is not much of that. Certainly to have these changes China also needs to reform its internal structure. But perhaps domestic changes have marched ahead of changes abroad. In other words, domestic changes are not as pressing as those in foreign policy. However, Chinese decision-makers are far more acquainted with the domestic situation than the situation abroad.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.