Lines of control

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 November, 2010, 12:00am

In the corridors of regional power, there is suddenly a lot of hot talk about 'shaping' China's rise. It is becoming a kind of diplomatic shorthand for laying out international norms, expected behaviour and regional responses that China must learn to deal with as Beijing comes to dominate the region.

It surfaced a few months ago during an unprecedented meeting of 18 regional defence ministers in Hanoi. 'Many of us found different ways of raising concerns about the future of the South China Sea,' said one minister. 'It is all about shaping patterns of expectation and behaviour.'

Few officials talk about it publicly, and privately a few acknowledge that it can sound more than a little patronising.

US President Barack Obama gave it a fresh airing at the weekend on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Yokohama as he attempted to burnish Washington's expanding network of allies and strategic partners surrounding China. Never one to skirt nuance, Obama avoided saying directly that he wanted to 'shape' China but the message was plain. And he will never use the word 'containment'.

'We will work with our allies and partners to shape the context in which China's rise is occurring; this is one of the pillars of my approach to China,' he said in a written response to Japan's Yomiuri daily, one of the world's largest newspapers. 'The United States and our regional allies and partners share a fundamental interest in ensuring security, stability and prosperity in Asia. The peaceful resolution of outstanding differences and respect for international norms and law are central to these latter goals.'

This may be all very well - and a surprisingly diverse range of smaller countries may be playing their part in the 'shape' offensive - but it all risks obscuring a vital point: does China have any interest in allowing itself to be 'shaped'?

Certainly, its moves across East Asia over the past year or so suggest the reverse. For better or worse, China is attempting to 'shape' the region itself, getting it ready for days when Asia must live with a full-blown superpower, and all the ability to hector and bully that the word implies.

For all the honourable nature of America's highest motives, Washington is a past master of getting its own way through fair means and foul, and has shown many times that double standards are the prerogative of the superpower.

The region is fast learning that it has to be prepared to face double standards in dealing with China, too. The subdued Chinese reaction to North Korea's fatal torpedoing of a South Korean warship in March is in stark contrast to the way Beijing would undoubtedly respond if another country sunk one of its own ships and killed 46 Chinese sailors. The potential reaction is simply too terrible to contemplate.

And this column has already highlighted the double standards in the ongoing fury directed at Japan over the detention of a fishing captain off the disputed Diaoyu islands, compared with Beijing's campaign against Vietnamese fishermen further south. Boats have been sunk, lives lost and hundreds detained.

Each passing month brings fresh signs of Beijing's harder edge, and few in the region are talking any more about President Hu Jintao's 'harmonious world', except as a point of contrast. Instead, it is a shrill warning behind closed doors at a regional meeting in July from an angry Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that is still resonating: 'There are big countries, and there are small countries, and that is just a fact.'

Not surprisingly, many outside China are wondering if Beijing realises just how counterproductive some of its behaviour is becoming, playing right into the hands of a US actively nurturing its security relationships in East Asia, as well as making small nations nervous, prompting them to seek safety in numbers.

This line of thought is perfectly understandable but it, too, risks obscuring another vital point: Beijing is now doing things simply because it thinks it can.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent