Is China losing its diplomatic finesse?
Posted Sunday, July 29 2012 at 19:35
In 2016, China’s share of the global economy will be larger than America’s in purchasing-price-parity terms.
This is an earth-shaking development; in 1980, when the US accounted for 25 per cent of world output, China’s share of the global economy was only 2.2 per cent.
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 naïve and foolish to bank on their country’s peaceful and quiet rise to global pre-eminence.
At some point, America will awaken from its geopolitical slumber; there are already signs that it has opened one eye.
But 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.
Similarly, after North Korean shells killed innocent South Korean civilians in November 2010, China remained essentially 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 in December 2010.
China has also ruffled many Indian feathers by arbitrarily denying visas to senior officials. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao subsequently calmed the waters in meetings with Indian PM Manmohan Singh, but such unnecessary provocations left a residue of mistrust in India.
But all of these mistakes pale in comparison with what China did to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in July.
For the first time in 45 years, the Asean Ministerial Meeting failed to agree to a joint communiqué, ostensibly because Cambodia, which is currently chairing Asean, did not want the communiqué to refer to bilateral disputes in the South China Sea.
But the whole world, including most Asean countries, saw Cambodia’s stance as influenced by China.
China’s victory proved to be Pyrrhic. It won the battle of the communiqué, 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 US with its best possible geopolitical opportunity. If Deng Xiaoping 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 Communiqué.
But 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.