When China's neighbours shudder

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 September, 2010, 12:00am

It was ironic that Beijing wheeled out former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to use a dinner party to warn the US not to send an aircraft carrier into the Yellow Sea. As a former shipping executive, Tung is surely aware of the principles of international waters - not to mention South Korea's right to US help to defend itself against China's unpredictable, nuclear-armed ally North Korea. But blood is thicker than water.

This episode is yet another example of China's rise appearing increasingly less peaceful as it aims to upset the status quo on several fronts. There is an arrogance that reminds one of the behaviour of the US when Messrs Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co. were running policy, oblivious to the limits of US military power and economic strength.

Now we have yet another high-profile row with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islets. I take no sides on the historical and geographical claims made by China or Japan but merely note that, apart from the interlude of US occupation of the Ryukyus from 1945 to 1972, Japan has controlled the islands, once part of the Ryukyu kingdom, since 1895. So even assuming that right is on China's side, it is the one trying to upset the status quo.

As for the US sending warships into the Yellow Sea, which borders the Koreas as much as China, that would be nothing compared with China's April exercise - sending a 10-vessel fleet through the Miyako channel between Okinawa and Miyako island, a channel only fractionally wide enough to count as international waters.

All this may appeal to a growing sense of nationalism among the populace as well as China's leaders. But it is no way to win friends and influence people in Asia. A year ago, the end of Liberal Democratic Party rule in Japan seemed to herald a new era of reduced dependence on the US alliance. But actions by China and North Korea have not only caused a shift in sentiment but a shift in Japanese defence priorities to its southern waters. Likewise, South Korea's once rapidly warming relations with China have been set back first by the Cheonan sinking and now by this dispute over US-Korea naval exercises, plus two recent visits to China by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il - an apparent reaffirmation of ties.

As for Southeast Asia, Vietnam has led the way in pushing back against reinvigorated Chinese claims that reach almost to the shores of the other littoral states - Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei - and overlap with Indonesia's exclusive economic zone. This issue is now back on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' and international agendas.

As if these exercises in wannabe hegemonism were not enough, China has also riled India not only by reasserting its claims to much of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh and part of Kashmir, but using its muscle to stop international funding for projects there and refusing visas for Indian officials based in Kashmir.

On the other side of the ledger, all of Asia is grateful for China's economic growth, which has spurred the industrial export economies of Japan and South Korea and the commodity exporters of Southeast Asia. Chinese tourists and capital are welcomed.

But all these countries quietly shudder when they hear words such as those of the People's Liberation Army Major General Luo Yuan , writing in Global Times. Threatening retaliation for Yellow Sea exercises, he warned: 'Imagine what the consequences will be if China's biggest debtor nation challenges its creditor nation.' In other words: become economically dependent on us and we will translate that into political power. It might work with the smaller states of Asia. But perhaps it is time for Beijing to imagine the consequences of the US reneging on its debt to China, banning technology exports or closing its market to Chinese manufactures. Two can play the nationalist game.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator