Mon, Mar 14, 2011 - Page 8 News List

China’s fragile rise starts to show

By Sushil Seth

Last year, China gave notice that it was serious about enforcing its writ over the Asia-Pacific region through a series of strong political and military moves.

Clearly, developments in the region last year when China threatened Japan, detained Vietnamese fishermen, claimed all of the South China Sea and warned the US off the Yellow Sea is obviously Beijing’s version of asserting its historical role as the old Middle Kingdom..

Meanwhile, some Chinese generals made strong statements about their country’s rapidly expanding economic interests and the need for a commensurate navy to protect such interests.

All this created further alarm among China’s neighbors, which brought them closer to the US.

China subsequently toned down its rhetoric, but the reality remains that it is continuing its military buildup.

Its defense budget this year will rise by 12.6 percent to a total of 601 billion yuan (US$88.8 billion). The US estimated the Chinese military budget to be US$150 billion in 2009.

Such an increase in China’s defense budget year after year will only exacerbate the nervousness of its neighbors.

At a time when China’s leadership is jumpy about rising social discontent in the country compounded by the example of people power in the Middle East, its growing armory is dangerous both for its own people and regional stability.

We know from the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 that the Chinese leadership will not hesitate to kill their own people when challenged with a threat to their monopoly on power.

They have already intensified a crackdown on dissent by rounding up activists, threatening foreign journalists and massively censoring all news from print and Internet sources on developments in the Middle East.

Faced with internal challenge to their rule, China’s rulers might resort to the nationalist card by playing up the foreign threat to national “sovereignty” in Taiwan and elsewhere in the region.

Bereft of popular legitimacy at home, nationalism is a great draw card, selectively used now and then against Japan and the US.

For the world, though, it is China’s growing military power that is going to be a problem in the years to come.

Of even greater danger is its growing nuclear arsenal. According to WikiLeaks, Ma Xiaotian (馬曉天), deputy chief of the Chinese army, reportedly told his US interlocutors in June 2008 that the growth of China’s nuclear forces was an “imperative reality.”

He asserted that there could be “no limit on technical progress.”

Ma also rejected US calls for transparency, saying: “It is impossible for [China] to change its decades-old way of doing business to become transparent using the US model.”

Even as China keeps growing its military power and throwing its weight around the region and the wider world, it still swears that it has no hegemonic ambitions.

If China were just going about its business peacefully and without threatening its neighbors, why are its neighbors feeling disquiet, if not alarm, about its role?

For example, Vietnam is developing closer links with the US and Japan is reinforcing its defense links with the US.

In addition, Australia’s 2009 white paper on defense clearly pointed to a strategic threat from China by about 2030.

It said that between 2020 and 2030, China is expected to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, which will in turn “affect the distribution of strategic power,” with China increasingly able to throw its weight around.

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