China announces arrival as superpower

Greg Torode says China's confident exertion of pressure on Japan clearly announces the arrival of a superpower, with no ifs and buts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 September, 2012, 10:05am


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Superpowers are not like other countries. For starters, their sheer size and clout grants them the prerogative of "do as I say, not as I do" diplomacy. Smaller nations may burn with frustration when they encounter the contradictions, but quickly find themselves crumbling in the face of raw power.

China is often described as a budding, emerging or potential superpower but, as it starts to exercise its heft, it is clear it has graduated beyond such qualifiers. It is showing itself quite capable of bludgeoning diplomatic rivals with its own version of "do as I say, not as I do".

The fresh tensions over the Diaoyu Islands are one example. It is hard to imagine Beijing tolerating in neighbouring countries the kind of sustained anti-Japanese protests witnessed last week across dozens of mainland cities. Far smaller demonstrations in the Philippines and Vietnam over disputes with China in the South China Sea have been met with considerable diplomatic wrath from Beijing.

Then, of course, there have been the controversial responses to claimed "provocations" from both Manila and Hanoi over the dispute. The creation of a civilian presence and a possible divisional-strength military garrison across what has been formalised as Sansha city has delivered the bluntest of messages. You mess with Beijing at your peril.

This brings us back to the Diaoyus, known as the Senkakus in Japanese. Japan has long insisted, as occupiers and administrators, that there is nothing to discuss; the islands are not in dispute. It is a mirror of China's position in the Paracels - now headquarters of Sansha - which are also claimed by Vietnam.

For how long will Tokyo be able to sustain this position? The whole region is watching.

"If China can break Japan over this, they can break anybody," said one veteran Southeast Asian envoy. "Beijing is really showing its new power. The old rules of tit for tat no longer count … We can see it bending the region to its will."

Another echoed the view. The status quo that has loosely governed the islands' dispute in recent years could be ending, he warned. "I fear China is exploiting a provocation to change the whole scenario … so who knows how this is going to end?"

One sign to look for, beyond China's formal demarcation of territorial baselines around the islands, is some kind of permanent seaborne presence, perhaps fishing fleets and/or surveillance craft. "Then it will be clear just how far things have changed," one envoy said.

In different ways, of course, the US has long proved a master of "do as I say, not as I do". Just think of the many small emerging nations dragged towards free-trade deals only to find themselves victims of US protectionist manoeuvres, or the refusal of the US Congress to adopt the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Or, appallingly, the human rights abuses manifest in the "war on terror".

When confronted with Washington in such a mode, smaller Asian nations can console themselves that the US is long way away. With the Chinese superpower, they have no such luxury.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.