SINOGRAPH Unbowed China wobbles in diplomatic test
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Consider it, if you wish, a stress test, like those performed in
laboratories to check the strength of concrete. How will it react if it is
under some strain? How much weight can it bear, and what will it do under too
much weight? Will it bend or break?
China, under the stress test of one of its fishing boats captured by a Japanese
patrol near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, almost crumbled. Thus it put a big
question mark on the already very complicated issue of ties with its neighbors
and the rest of the world.
When things were still very unclear and the Japanese authorities were still
holding the Chinese captain of the boat captured, China arrested four Japanese
filmmakers, investigating them for
espionage. Shortly after, Tokyo released the captain and the expected process
should have been that the Chinese would release the filmmakers and put an end
to the mess. But Beijing didn't do that and pressed on as if it were looking
for revenge: it asked Japan for an apology and compensation.
Can Japan apologize and offer compensation? Tokyo claims the Senkaku are its
territory, and its navy has been patrolling the area for years, whether they
have the right to do so or not. In the case, Japan was within its rights to
warn the Chinese boat off and arrest the captain when it rammed, intentionally
or unintentionally, two Japanese Coast Guard boats. For Tokyo to offer
apologies and compensation would be to admit that the Senkaku do not belong to
Japan. Japan would essentially be caving in to China's territorial requests
just the day after it was overtaken by China's gross domestic product (GDP). No
self-respecting nation could possibly do that.
Furthermore, China's requests are saying to the world: as soon as I leapfrog
your GDP, I am going to look for reasons or excuses to enforce my claims. Wait
until I am economically a little bit bigger than you, and then I will settle
all my old accounts with everybody. Isn't it scary for everyone?
Scary can be effective politically, provided people get scared - otherwise it
backfires. In this case, neither Japan nor any neighbor was frightened by
China. Tokyo arguably buttressed its claim to the Senkaku by bringing in the
US, which said it would fulfill its alliance obligations if Japan were attacked
by China over the Senkaku.
Moreover, the US and South Korea have started naval maneuvers, which had been
suspended because of "bad weather". And on September 26, Japan also asked China
for reparations because of damage caused to its patrol boats by the Chinese
What can China do? Further escalate tensions with Japan? This would also
backfire, as it would rally more countries around Japan. And it would
progressively isolate China, since Japan would certainly not buckle, and other
countries would come to be less intimidated by China's bullying. Things could
easily spin out of control. Or China could suck it up, fumble for a solution,
and then strive to mend fences and just accept looking like a fool. This second
case could leave many nationalists in China very dissatisfied and eager to
settle accounts with rulers perceived as weaklings.
Either scenario is bad enough even without considering mounting tensions
abroad. Washington is growing concerned about China's recent limitation on the
export of rare-earth minerals, something that already has Japan very worried.
The US is also more and more frustrated about its so far vain efforts to get a
sizeable appreciation of the yuan versus the dollar.
If this were to happen, the US trade deficit would not be resolved, since the
US would still import a lot, but its sources could partly change. Many
developing countries, presently suffering from trying to compete with China,
upheld by the weak yuan, would be grateful to America for having forced
Beijing's hand. Partially relieved of competition from the cheap Chinese yuan,
these countries could gain by exporting more to America and perhaps in time
also challenge some Chinese industries.
Meanwhile, the request for reparations from Japan cast a gloomy light on the
whole Senkaku incident. As Beijing asked for reparations, wasn't it really
trying to set up the whole incident to push its territorial claims? Isn't the
move really aggressive, despite the vaunted official theory of "peaceful rise"?
What is the net result so far for China? It looks scary, but it may not be so.
Is it a paper tiger, or a real one? In the first case, it can be shrugged off,
in the second case it must be caged, if not eliminated.
Was any of this China's intention? Was it trying to scare anybody? Possibly it
was just venting its anger over an incident that it didn't expect and that
spiraled out of control. Last week, Beijing restrained anti-Japanese
demonstrations and reined in public anger over the captain's arrest.
Yet, at a certain point, like in a failed stress test, China cracked and
extended its agony over the incident by introducing the request of reparations,
when everything should have been finished. Why did China do it?
Like in all stress tests, one can decide to improve the resistance of the
material, and then decide to investigate the reasons for the cracking and fix
the material's faults. Or it can be happy with the result knowing that, after a
certain amount of pressure, China will simply and predictably crack.
China now confronts a double dilemma. First, should it try to get out of the
dangerous vice of being seen like a paper tiger? Or maybe Beijing is happy with
Second, it must improve its stress resistance to internal or external
pressures. Or, again, maybe China is happy with having the whole world know the
exact cracking point of its system.
My personal wild guess is that Beijing is not happy (as it should not be) with
the results of the incident, but fixing it will need some deep soul-searching
about strategies and tactics.
The incident signaled the beginning of the unraveling for China of a state of
international benign goodwill surrounding its growth and development. That
period began after 9/11, when the US and the world turned their attention away
from Beijing's economic and political expansion and toward fundamentalist
Beijing should also perhaps revamp, relaunch and refocus its strategy of
"peaceful rise" if it still believes in it. China can hardly expect global
lenience and liberalness as the sheer size of its economy and population casts
a long shadow over the future of the world and its post-Cold War order.
Meanwhile, the fundamental Islamist threat is shrinking, the economic crisis is
not over, and having a nice, big traditional enemy could solve many issues for
the hawks hovering all over the world scavenging for war.
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa. His e-mail is