Fri, Oct 15, 2010 - Page 8 News List

China’s Middle Kingdom syndrome

By Sushil Seth

China has been firing salvos in all directions, asserting its sovereignty and power over the South China Sea, East Asia Sea and Yellow Sea, and as far away as the Antarctica.

According to Wei Wenliang (魏文良), who heads China’s Antarctic program, with China’s increased scientific and maritime capabilities, it is now equipped to “shoulder the responsibility” of administering the region.

As in the regional seas where other countries have competing claims, China will have to contend with quite a few countries and their respective claims to Antarctica.

However, closer to the region, it is a much more serious matter. For instance, the China-Japan scuffle over their disputed claims over the East China Sea, where a Chinese fishing trawler collided with a Japanese patrol boat and Japan detained its captain, created quite a serious crisis in their bilateral relationship.

The subsequent release of the captain, followed by a meeting between Japan’s prime minister and China’s premier on the sidelines of an international conference, has calmed things down a bit, but the potential for a flare-up is always there.

Even though Japan’s wartime record generally weighs against it in the region, it would appear that this time China’s reaction appeared to be a bit over the top.

Kosuke Takahashi of Jane’s Defence Weekly, who follows these matters closely, has said: “If you look at the editorials in Southeast Asia and the US in major newspapers, you can see China overreacted.”

“South Korea also has issues with China over the Socotra Rock. The Philippines and Vietnam have territorial issues with China. Those countries look at the Chinese reaction and they are worried,” he said.

China has been virtually telling its regional neighbors that they have no option but to accept China’s claims of sovereignty. As Malcolm Cook of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, has said: “It’s certainly given an example of China’s actions that don’t fit a ‘peaceful rise’ narrative.”

This is creating a new nexus between the US and Southeast Asian countries worried about China’s assertive sovereignty claims, with no provision for peaceful resolution of disputed issues. This is particularly reflected in closer strategic relations between the US and Vietnam, and renewal of military ties with Indonesia.

At another level, China is facing intense pressure from the US and Western Europe in trade matters, particularly its undervalued currency. Even though there is a reluctance in official quarters to brand it a “currency manipulator,” as China floods the world with its cheap goods and accumulates vast currency reserves from trade imbalances, there is no ambiguity in the message about the need for China to revalue its currency.

This is starkly reflected in the US House of Representatives’ recent legislation to enable the US to impose retaliatory countermeasures against China. The US Congress has been examining this issue for a long time, and, finally, the House has acted. The Senate still has to take up the issue. It will do so after the mid-term elections next month.

And it is high time too, New York Times columnist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman said.

“Diplomacy on China’s currency has gone nowhere, and will continue going nowhere unless backed by the threat of retaliation,” he wrote in a recent column.

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