Tue, Aug 07, 2012 - Page 8 News List

Is China losing the diplomatic plot?

By Kishore Mahbubani

In 2016, China’s share of the global economy will be larger than the US’ in purchasing-price-parity terms. This is an earth-shaking development; in 1980, when the US accounted for 25 percent of world output, China’s share of the global economy was only 2.2 percent. And yet, after 30 years of geopolitical competence, the Chinese seem to be on the verge of losing it just when they need it most.

China’s leaders would be naive and foolish to bank on their country’s peaceful and quiet rise to global pre-eminence. At some point, the US will awaken from its geopolitical slumber; there are already signs that it has opened one eye.

China has begun to make serious mistakes. After Japan acceded to Chinese pressure and released a captured Chinese trawler in September 2010, China went overboard and demanded an apology from Japan, rattling the Japanese establishment.

Similarly, after North Korean shells killed innocent South Korean civilians in November 2010, China remained silent. In a carefully calibrated response, South Korea sent its ambassador to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for the imprisoned Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) in December 2010.

China has also ruffled many Indian feathers by arbitrarily denying visas to senior officials. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) subsequently calmed the waters in meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but such unnecessary provocations left a residue of mistrust in India.

However, all of these mistakes pale in comparison with what China did to ASEAN last month. For the first time in 45 years, the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) failed to agree to a joint communique, ostensibly because ASEAN’s current chair, Cambodia, did not want the communique to refer to bilateral disputes in the South China Sea. However, the whole world perceived Cambodia’s stance as the result of Chinese pressure.

China’s victory proved to be pyrrhic. It won the battle, but it may have lost 20 years of painstakingly accumulated goodwill, the result of efforts such as the ASEAN-China free-trade agreement, signed in November 2002. More importantly, China’s previous leaders had calculated that a strong and unified ASEAN provided a valuable buffer against any possible US containment strategy. Now, by dividing ASEAN, China has provided the US with its best possible geopolitical opportunity in the region. If former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) were alive, he would be deeply concerned.

It may be unfair to blame China’s leaders for the ASEAN debacle. More likely than not, over-zealous junior officials pushed a hard line on the South China Sea, whereas no Chinese leader, if given the choice, would have opted to wreck the AMM communiqe. However, the fact that it happened reveals the scope of China’s recent poor decision-making.

The “nine-dotted line” that China has drawn over the South China Sea may prove to be nothing but a big geopolitical millstone around China’s neck. It was unwise to attach the map in a note verbale responding to a joint submission by Vietnam and Malaysia to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf in May 2009. This was the first time that China had included the map in an official communication to the UN, and it caused great concern among some ASEAN members.

The geopolitical opportunity implied by inclusion of the map has not been lost on the US, which is why the US has made another effort to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention. Having tabled the nine-dotted line at the UN, China walked into a no-win situation, owing to the difficulty of defending the map under international law.

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