Thu, Jan 13, 2011 - Page 8 News List

The Chinese dragon bares its teeth

By Sushil Seth

In the year just passed, China loudly, if not rudely, declared its supremacy over the Asia-Pacific region. In March, for instance, it asserted its sovereignty over the South China Sea by declaring it an area of “core national interest” on par with Tibet and Taiwan.

In this way, Beijing simply brushed aside the claims of other regional countries to islands in these waters.

Indeed, a Chinese scientific submarine planted a Chinese flag on the floor of the ocean to announce to all and sundry that it was Chinese waters.

“It [planting the flag] might provoke some countries, but we’ll be all right,” according to Zhao Junhai (趙俊海), a key designer of the submarine.

In any case, he said, “The South China Sea belongs to China. Let’s see who dares to challenge that.”

China, therefore, overrode its own commitment to resolve the sovereignty issue peacefully and through diplomacy with its neighbors. To emphasize Beijing’s seriousness, Chinese ships reportedly seized dozens of Vietnamese fishing boats and arrested their crews.

Months later, in September, China threatened Japan with reprisals when the Japanese coast guard arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler after it collided with two Japanese patrol boats around the Senkaku Islands, administered by Tokyo but also claimed by Beijing and Taipei as the Diaoyutai (釣魚台) Islands.

It halted exports of rare earth metals to Japan, crucial for high-end electronics products, and it demanded an apology and compensation that Tokyo refused. However, Japan caved in by releasing the Chinese captain when it had earlier announced that he would be put on trial.

The point is that through these pronouncements, China was announcing to the world that it was the new boss around the region.

China was also furious with the US-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, regarding it as an unwarranted intrusion into what it, more or less, regards as its own waters or regional sphere of influence.

In other words, through its actions and words, China is proclaiming its own version of the Monroe Doctrine for the 21st century.

Of course, this will be contested, as it is creating a rethinking in the region and bringing some of China’s neighbors into closer political and military ties with the US. That, however, is a different story.

The question then is: Why did China choose last year as the year to announce from the housetops that it is the master of the Asia-Pacific region?

An important reason is the psychological boost that it got from the sad state of Western economies in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Even though China was badly affected initially, with many millions of workers laid off in its export industries, it retrieved itself from the situation with an injection of almost US$600 billion in stimulus to its economy.

At the same time, its export sector also recovered rather well. The trade surplus with the US continued to increase by about US$200 billion a year.

This doesn’t mean that China’s economy is without serious problems, but that is a story by itself.

Second, with the US economy in trouble and its military overstretched in Afghanistan and Iraq, China underestimated Washington’s resolve and capacity to maintain its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

It would seem that the US determination to stand by its South Korean ally against Pyongyang’s provocations was a bit of a shock to Beijing, including sending US aircraft carriers to the Yellow Sea to take part in joint naval exercises. And the US did this against Beijing’s warning.

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