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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Beijing Backlash

October 5, 2010

China is starting to face consequences for its newly aggressive stance.
Joshua Kurlantzick
October 4, 2010

Over the past two weeks, all of Asia watched with
alarm as China forced Japan to back down in a
maritime dispute by downgrading diplomatic ties,
and tolerating if not encouraging public street
protest against Tokyo as well as halting
shipments of critical industrial metals to Japan.
The face-off symbolizes Beijing’s new attitude:
once officially committed to rising peacefully in
cooperation with its neighbors, China now seems
determined to show its neighbors -- and the
United States—that it has growing military and
economic interests that other countries ignore at their peril.

China has reopened old wounds with India by
publicly raising its claims to territory in the
Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which
triggered a troop buildup by both countries along
the border. Beijing has proclaimed the South
China Sea to be a “core national interest,” a
term previously used for Taiwan and Tibet (among
other places) to signal that Beijing will brook
no outside criticism of its claims to a wide
swath of the sea, which has strategic value as
well as potential oil wealth. Increasingly, the
Chinese Navy has harassed American and Japanese
vessels sailing in Asian waters. And Beijing has
largely stonewalled complaints by countries in
mainland Southeast Asia that new Chinese dams on
the upper portions of the Mekong River are
diverting water and hurting the livelihood of
downstream fishermen and farmers. China also has
harshly condemned joint U.S.-South Korean naval
exercises, and applied growing pressure on
Southeast Asian nations to jettison even their
informal relations with Taiwan, which once had
extremely close ties to countries like Singapore and the Philippines.

China’s aggressive behavior represents a sea
change in longstanding Chinese policy. Deng
Xiaoping used to urge Chinese leaders to keep a
low public profile in foreign affairs. During the
Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s Beijing
launched a charm offensive toward its neighbors,
who still remembered the revolutionary,
interventionist China of Mao Zedong’s years, when
it backed the genocidal Khmer Rouge and
insurgents in Burma, among other causes. This
softly-softly approach reaped rewards. Beijing
inked a free-trade agreement with the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations that came into effect
earlier this year and helped make Beijing one of
the leading trading partners of nearly every
country in the region. In the late 1990s and
early 2000s China upgraded its role in Asia’s
regional organizations, including ASEAN, and
shifted the focus of its relationship with India,
the other emerging giant, from old hostilities to
new commercial links, including partnerships
between India’s world-leading
information-technology firms and their Chinese
peers. The region’s diplomats praised China’s
consensus-building approach, and its sharp
contrast to the “with us or against us” style of
the George W. Bush administration.

In some ways, the change in attitude is an
extension of China’s enduring interest in
protecting its sovereign rights, dating back to
well before Deng’s time as leader. More than
that, though, the global economic crisis has left
China in a far stronger international position
than many of its neighbors or the U.S., and
Chinese leaders and diplomats now seem to feel
they can throw their weight around on
international issues. Just as Chinese leaders
increasingly lecture Western officials in public
about the breakdowns of free-market capitalism,
so too the Chinese have become more willing to
make public demands from other Asian countries.
“There is a certain extent of hubris in [China’s]
actions,” says Lam Peng Er, an expert in
China-Japan relations at the National University
of Singapore. China recently overtook Japan as
the world’s second-largest economy, and some view
that as a “coming of age,” he says.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the change in
Chinese behavior is the tension around the
leadership changes in Beijing, planned for 2012,
when Hu Jintao is expected to step down for
presumptive heir and current vice president, Xi
Jinping. Unlike Deng, who fought in the Chinese
civil war—or even former leader Jiang Zemin, who
had strong relations with the Army -- Hu and Xi
do not have a clear constituency or link to the
military, says Kerry Brown, a senior fellow at
the Asia Program of Chatham House, a British
think tank. As a result, the new leaders may be
less able than in the past to control a defense
establishment now pushing for its own hawkish
interests, such as expanding China’s naval sphere
of influence, that aren’t always consistent with
China’s broader diplomatic goals or the more
dovish Foreign Ministry. Already, Hu and Xi,
lacking Deng’s power base, are finding they have
to accommodate the armed forces. Many China
experts—and, even privately, some Chinese
officials—argue that the tension may continue in
some form at least until after 2010.

But all this toughness is coming at a cost: an
Asia-wide backlash that could cost Beijing a
decade’s worth of accumulated good will. Earlier
this year, a report by the Lowy Institute in
Australia found that “rather than using the rise
of China as a strategic counterweight to American
primacy, most countries in Asia seem to be
quietly bandwagoning with the United States."
Another survey, by the Center for Strategic and
International Studies, a Washington think tank,
found that most elites in Asia said the U.S.
would be the greatest source of peace in the
region 10 years from now, while China would be
the biggest threat. For that reason, Southeast
Asian nations have recently welcomed a greater
American defense presence. Vietnam, which
theoretically enjoys a close relationship with
China as a fellow communist state, has launched a
strategic dialogue with its old enemy the U.S.
and may embark upon a nuclear deal in which
Washington provides Hanoi with enrichment
technology that China had once hoped to provide.
Within 10 years, Vietnam could be America’s de
facto closest ally in Southeast Asia, other than
Singapore. Indonesia, also courted intensely by
China, this year embarked upon a new
“comprehensive partnership” with the U.S. that
includes new military links; at the U.S.-ASEAN
summit in New York, Indonesian Foreign Minister
Marty Natalegawa publicly rejected China’s demand
that Southeast Asian nations keep America out of
the South China Sea dispute. Even Cambodia, a
country heavily dependent on Chinese aid, has
opened new defense ties with the Pentagon; the
Cambodian and American militaries conducted joint
military exercises, nicknamed Angkor Sentinel, earlier this year.

At the same time, many Asian nations are making
deals with each other to create a balance against
China. Vietnam recently announced a security
dialogue with Japan, while India has invited
Japan to make enormous new investments in Indian
infrastructure—deals that, under different
conditions, could have been captured by Chinese
companies. What’s more, nearly every nation in
Southeast Asia is laying out cash for weapons.
According to the Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute, the amount spent on weapons
purchases in Southeast Asia nearly doubled
between 2005 and 2009 alone, with Vietnam
recently paying $2.4 billion for Russian
submarines and jetfighters designed for attacking
ships. Given that countries like Vietnam and
Malaysia, another major recent arms buyer, face
few threats within Southeast Asia, the weapons
systems can only be designed to repel China.
Beijing is also increasing its military spending
by as much as 15 percent annually in recent
years, suggesting the tensions between China and
its neighbors are only just beginning.

With Isaac Stone Fish in Beijing
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