SINOGRAPH It is the world or nothing for
China By Francesco Sisci
Let's be fair: from the perspective of 30
years on, did it make any real sense for the
United Kingdom to go to war in 1982 over the
islands the British call the Falklands and the
Argentines the Malvinas? For the UK, they were
rocks on the other side of the world with no gas
and no natural resources. Before the war, their
tiny population didn't even have full-fledged
Yes, the occupier, an
Argentina ruled by generals, was most unpleasant.
It was a fascist regime that had cracked down on
its own population with cruelty and gusto, and it
had plunged the country into great economic
difficulties. The occupation of the Malvinas was
supposed to prop up the faltering government in
Buenos Aires. Instead, it proved to be the final
jolt to topple it.
Yet in the middle of
the Cold War, what was the meaning of a
costly final colonial
campaign by prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who
in the meantime was destroying the welfare system
that supported millions in Britain? Thirty years
ago, that war brought down the Argentine generals
but did little else for the UK.
September, just months after the war ended in
June, Beijing stonewalled London's request to
extend its 99-year lease of Hong Kong during
Thatcher's first visit to China. The Falklands
conflict had done nothing to stop or even weaken
China's resolve to end the British colonial legacy
in its territory. But in the meantime, the
Falklands victory may have muddled many British
After the war, London might have
thought it had a strong hand to negotiate with
Beijing over the Hong Kong lease extension.
Beijing saw things differently. It thought London
had shown once again that its colonial ambitions
were not dead. Those ambitions had started the
19th-century Opium Wars, which began to bring down
China. Such ambitions remained a threat to China
and had to end. If the British wanted to
discuss the lease, it meant they recognized its
validity. Moreover, China was no Argentina, and
Hong Kong was no Falklands/Malvinas. The
territory's water supply came from the mainland,
and Hong Kong's Chinese majority had, to say the
least, very split loyalties. Many would side with
Beijing in the case of war. A conflict there would
be a disaster on all fronts for Britain.
With hindsight, it seems that if London
had simply not broached the subject of the return
of Hong Kong and had allowed Hongkongers the right
to vote for a local parliament, or even for the
British Parliament, the territory might still be
British to this day.
China might have
never brought up the issue of the lease, and even
if it did, it would have felt very awkward in the
early 1980s about taking back a territory with
full-fledged democratic experience. In other
words, if Thatcher had negotiated with Argentina
to give up the Falklands on the eve of the
occupation of even after and if it had given Hong
Kong democracy rather than attempting to negotiate
with the Chinese over the lease, Britain might now
have Hong Kong and be without the Falklands. It
turned out to be the other way around.
did that happen? Britain misunderstood China and
possibly put minor momentary priorities (the
concern about the internal political balance in
the UK if the people of Hong Kong were given a
vote) before its larger, long-term interests. In
fact, one can say that London did not see the
bigger picture, both in space and history, in
Yet in an ironic turn, some Chinese
today might by missing the bigger picture on the
issue of the islands the Japanese call Senkaku and
the Chinese call Diaoyudao, an issue that is in
some respects similar to that of the
The first lesson of
geopolitics is that your politics ought to start
from the political geography you inherited. From
that, you can develop politically by adapting to
your ambitions, objective conditions, and
perceived circumstances for internal or external
China is surrounded by about
20 states, and with all of them there are
contentious borders and potential flash points.
This makes it impossible for China to have an
expansive, aggressive foreign policy. Border
friction with one country would provoke
contentions and fear in all the others.
The only real reason this does not happen
is the US presence in Asia, which lubricates
relations and ties. If the US were to weaken the
lubrication process, stop it, or kindle a little
spark, that might be enough to scorch the whole
prairie around China.
This tension was
bound to increase as China grew politically and
economically, just as the growing body of an
adolescent puts stress on the seams and threatens
to tear apart the baby clothes he still wears.
Meanwhile, along with China and because of China,
most of its neighbors also grew economically and
politically, increasing their ambitions and the
tensions among the neighbors. So the baby clothes
were pulled from both ends.
arose before the 2008 economic crisis, that is,
before another point of contention between China
and its neighbors. During 2009 and 2010, to stave
off the dangers of contagion from the world
economic crisis, China kept its exchange rate with
the US dollar low and refused to revalue its
currency, the yuan. This helped its economy and
its exports, but it damaged the economies of
neighbors that were manufacturing products very
similar to Chinese exports. 
And so, to
long-simmering border issues that were already
under stress because of China and its neighbors'
growth, Beijing inadvertently added a new flash
point: economic competition in exports. It was as
if a dried-up, flammable forest experienced a very
hot summer with a scorching sun.
situation, the US could have sprayed water to
prevent the searing of regional ties. But the US -
also piqued by its many setbacks in 2009, the
first year of President Barack Obama's
administration - felt it had done enough to help
China keep the regional peace and stability
necessary for its continued economic growth,
without even being noticed or thanked for it.
In 2010 therefore, US Secretary of State
Hillary Rodham Clinton gave Vietnam a slight nudge
on one of the most contentious issues, its claim
on the Spratly Islands, and all hell broke loose.
Tension with the Philippines went sky-high, and
friction over the Spratlys quickly moved to
another flash point, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands,
which are under Japanese control. Moreover, Japan,
which had just become the No 2 economy in Asia and
third in the world after China's rise in gross
domestic product, must have felt that those
islands were its last stand to preserve its
position in Asia and the world. If Tokyo were to
give up on the Senkakus after it had been
surpassed in GDP, its status in the world and the
region could be compromised forever, according to
some in its right wing.
some senior Thai observers have pointed out to me,
China's initial angry reactions on the Spratlys
and the Senkakus simply scared the rest of Asia.
After World War II, Japan did spread its influence
in the region, but it did that through economic
investment, the spread of welfare and industry. It
was a new tool of politics. Conversely, China, as
soon as it became strong and rich, seemed to
revert to the old instruments of power: roaring
and bullying. This Chinese behavior made Japan
look better in Asia compared with rising China.
China acted as it did for many reasons.
One was very important. It needed to weather the
economic storm coming from the US in 2009. If
China had also crashed in that storm, the whole
world might have suffered even more, and China
itself might have been badly hurt. In retrospect,
many in China now argue that its stimulus program
at the time was excessive. In reality, in such
situations it is hard to assess clearly how much
medicine is needed to make the patient recover,
and one tends to over-medicate on the often
correct assumption that recovery from an overdose
is easier than from a dose that is too small.
It is now clear that the present European
woes stem from exactly the opposite reaction: the
European Union under-medicated Greece against its
economic ills. So now a problem that could have
been fixed with some 100 billion euros (US$130
billion) could take many trillions to solve, while
it is also creating victims all around the
continent, and could break the EU apart. In
retrospect then, China did perform much better
than the EU.
But certainly, China failed
in transparency (it didn't make its motives and
concerns clear to its neighbors and the US, which
is a systemic problem for Beijing) and did not
understand well the general predicament, despite
the fact that some advisers warned of these risks.
We now can say it all happened because China was
pushed to the forefront of global politics without
enough preparation, and suddenly faced a moment
for which it thought it still had many years to
prepare. It was as if a child in elementary school
is immediately sent to university: he simply
cannot follow the professors, no matter how
brilliant he is.
In any event, this is all
in the past. The problem now is how China can get
out of this fix where each party views it from its
own little corner. At this point, there are no
easy solutions or short-term tricks. Any moves
will only further complicate matters, just as
applying the wrong medicine to an open wound with
will only make it fester.
It is China's
challenge to think of a strategy, but the
preceding analysis shows the necessary points of
intervention, and Beijing has started to heed some
It is indispensable for China to
ask for quick and massive US intervention. It
seems this has already been done with Japan and
the Southeast Asian countries, although we do not
know how far Beijing went with its requests.
However, it would be delusional to think that with
a few steps the US could fix the massive damage on
the ground. It takes minutes to burn down a house,
but it takes months or years to rebuild it. So
China needs to tighten its political cooperation
with the US just to recover essential breathing
space on its borders.
But this alone will
not be enough. China has to come up with a
completely new approach for dealing with its Asian
neighbors, bringing them together and keeping the
US in the loop. This is crucial because China's
prickliness on territorial issues has groomed
general sensitivity on the issue. South Korea is
incensed by its own island controversy with Japan,
and Taiwan has revamped its claim on the Senkakus.
This may make Beijing's particular claim stronger,
but it poisons the general air around China, and
the well-being of the general area is more vital
than the particular claims.
From these two
premises comes the syllogistic conclusion, divided
into two parts. First, there is the minor
conclusion that simply to survive, China needs to
take into consideration US and Asian points of
view and interests. This must go well beyond
old-fashioned Chinese manipulation - few would
fall for that now.
Second, the major
conclusion is that if China were to take in the US
and Asia, this bloc, representing the majority of
the world's population and GDP, would take over
the world. Even the possibility of this would
arouse fears and suspicion in Europe, Africa and
Latin America. To avert this, China, which would
be the most threatened by those countries'
suspicions, has to consider their interests as
This means that at this point, just
for its own survival, China must take in the whole
world or it will not even get those deserted
Senkaku rocks. It is a game of all or nothing.
"All" does not mean Chinese domination of the
world, impossible for many reasons, but quite the
opposite: it means China's thorough adaptation to
the rules of the world, which have been shaped for
hundreds of years by the Western tradition.
In a way, Beijing already sees this, as
its top adviser, Zheng Bijian, has proposed
building a community of interests between China
and the world. However, achieving this goal seems
impossible. China needs to change deeply and
quickly, because the next challenges might come
much earlier than it expects. It appears more
likely that China will fail miserably, and
rationally one should think so.
that has happened in the past 30 years in China
defies common reason. No Nobel Prize-winning
economist forecast China's meteoric rise, and the
few who believed in it did not get a Nobel but
public scorn, both inside and outside China. This
is not reason enough to believe that China can
overcome the present problems, but at least it
leaves room for the possibility that it might not
Notes 1. It was for this
reason that more than five years ago I examined
the objective conditions of China's political
geography. See "The blessing of China's threat",
La Stampa, June 4, 2007. I chose that date of June
4 to publish this because I thought, and still do,
that the issue was more important than the
crackdown on the student movement in Tiananmen
Square. 2. See my article China's
new leaders on a tightrope , Asia Times
Online, September 13, 2012.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist
for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and can be
reached at email@example.com.