Not long ago, we were hearing a lot about China’s peaceful rise. Lately, however, China’s leaders have apparently started to worry that people in other countries might associate the word “rise” with the ascent of a hegemonic power, so instead they have started to talk about “peaceful development.”
However, what other countries are really concerned about is whether China’s rise will be as peaceful and harmonious as promised. In recent years, Beijing has stressed the idea of soft power. Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) even said China would not become a hegemonic power as it grew stronger.
Many things Beijing has done, however, show that there is a big difference between what it says and what it does. China is a great power, but a fragile one, characterized by both a sense of self-importance and a lingering inferiority complex.
Relatively stable relations across the Taiwan Strait have allowed China to take a tougher stand in the South China, East China and Yellow seas than before. While avoiding arguments with Taiwan, Beijing wants to prevent Vietnam from taking advantage of its turn at the head of ASEAN to advance its territorial claims in the South China Sea. China has also denied the US the right to voice any opinion about the disputed Spratly Islands (南沙島礁). It set a deadline for Japan to release Zhan Qixiong (詹其雄), a trawler captain arrested near the disputed Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) and responded to US-South Korean naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea by firing off rocket salvos in its own war games.
Beijing dealt with the latest Diaoyutai incident by making threats against Japan. It suspended exchanges between officials, stopped sending tour groups, halted exports of rare metals to Japan and detained four Japanese nationals for making video recordings in a military zone. Although there have been anti-Chinese demonstrations in Japan, they hardly compare to the nationalistic protests in China, with Japanese shops smashed up in Chengdu and Xian.
Although China and Japan say they want to maintain “mutually beneficial strategic relations” and hold summit meetings every year, trust between the two countries remains fragile.
At the same time, China and the US say they want a “positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship,” and have started to hold “strategic economic dialogue” meetings at least once a year. Yet political trust is lacking and military exchanges take place in fits and starts.
Discord is not confined to China’s relations with the US and Japan. Following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), China struck back at Norway by canceling meetings in Beijing with its minister of fisheries, even though the Norwegian government has no say in who gets the prize.
China’s hard-line diplomatic treatment of the US, Japan and Norway shows that it is still not a responsible power. It also shows that Beijing lacks self-confidence and tends to imagine that other countries are trying to contain it.
Even though relations across the Taiwan Strait are quite stable right now, we in Taiwan have a close-up view of China’s hard-line behavior in the South China and East China Seas. Beijing has thrown Taiwan some economic treats, but not without expecting reciprocation in the political sphere. If China’s rise were really as peaceful as it claims, its neighbors would not feel the need to be so cautious.
Beijing’s handling of various issues has made it clear to the US and Japan that China’s rise will not be peaceful. Taiwan, too, should remain vigilant, because the present stability in the Taiwan Strait is unlikely to last forever.
Lin Cheng-yi is director of the Institute of European and American Studies at Academia Sinica.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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