Tread softly ahead

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am

Thirty-two years ago this week, Deng Xiaoping made a historic decision to end the Maoist policy of class struggle, with its incessant political campaigns, and shift the country's focus to economic construction. The Third Plenary Session of the Communist Party's 11th Central Committee, which met from December 18 to 22, 1978, decided to drop the policy of 'taking class struggle as the key link'.

In the 32 years since, China's success in economic development has been astounding. In 1978, China accounted for less than one per cent of the world economy and its foreign trade was insignificant. Today, it is the world's second-largest economy, and is probably more powerful than it has ever been.

Traditionally, China considered itself to be a civilised society surrounded by barbarians. Now, it says that it deals on a basis of equality with all countries, big or small. Its influence today extends to every corner of the world. Even American allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, trade more now with China than they do with the United States.

China has reason to be proud of its many achievements. But this is also a time for caution. Deng wisely advised China to adopt a low profile internationally and not to be confrontational but, in recent months, China has adopted an increasingly assertive foreign policy.

One example is the dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands. Deng advocated a policy of shelving the dispute while seeking joint development of natural resources. This is a policy that should be continued.

Recently, after the incident of a Chinese fishing trawler ramming two Japanese coastguard vessels, Japan arrested the captain and threatened to try him according to Japanese domestic law. China protested vigorously and, in the aftermath, the Japanese released the captain.

That is to say, China won that argument. It was then time to repair Sino-Japanese relations. Instead, China made things worse by calling on Japan to apologise and to pay compensation.

China's attitude towards the United States has also changed. During the climate change conference in Copenhagen last year, Washington felt that Beijing deliberately snubbed President Barack Obama by sending junior officials to negotiate with him.

Military exercises by China in the East and South China seas have also raised concern, especially among countries in Southeast Asia.

China's shielding of North Korea after its artillery bombardment of a South Korean island is also cause for concern.

Last month, after criticism from the Vatican on the ordination of a Catholic bishop without the consent of the Holy See, China accused the Vatican of violating freedom of religion.

It is odd, to say the least, to see a communist party, which by definition is atheistic, accusing the Catholic Church of violating freedom of religion.

As for the dispute over the Nobel Peace Prize, instead of letting the issue die, China fanned the flames, waging a campaign to convince other countries not to attend the ceremony in Norway.

It has framed the issue as one between China and the West, and seemed intent on proving that it now had more international support than the West.

Without going into the rights and wrongs of these individual issues, it can be said that China no longer seems concerned with how other countries perceive Chinese actions.

The present Chinese leadership seems to believe that the world has entered a new era and that Deng's advice regarding China's behaviour no longer needs to be heeded.

But just because it is so big, China arouses apprehension and fear. And China has by no means reached its zenith. It will continue to grow in the coming decades. If there was reason in the past to reassure other countries that they had nothing to fear from a rising China, there is even more reason to do that today.

China should continue to heed Deng's words.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator