Beijing Worrying Many Neighbours

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Something very strange is happening at the moment in the East China Sea and in the South China Sea, and Australia should be taking serious notice of these developments. In both areas Beijing is pushing disputed Chinese territorial claims with an aggressiveness that is remarkable and hasn't been seen for many a year.

In the East China Sea, Beijing claims sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu, which for many decades have been administered by Japan. In the South China Sea, Beijing claims sovereignty over virtually the whole of the sea, right down to the coastal waters of many of the nations with which it has territorial disputes, such as The Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

What is strange is the aggression with which Beijing is now pushing these claims. It is using commercial and sometimes coastguard-style fleets to violate the territorial waters of the nations with which it has disputes. In the case of Japan, Beijing recently licensed a series of violent anti-Japanese protests in which protesters hurled abuse and projectiles at Japanese diplomatic establishments in China and smashed Japanese businesses and motor vehicles.

The South China Sea dispute is bad enough. But the dispute with Japan is exceptionally dangerous. In this, China is confronting a nation whose present military strength is comparable with China's, which has a giant economy, and which is an ally in good standing of the US. Indeed, although the US has been working over time to defuse these tensions, and although it has no formal position on the merits of the various territorial disputes themselves, Washington is quite clear that if push comes to shove it is backing its ally, Japan.

Washington is in an interesting phase of its China policy, the third distinct phase since Barack Obama became President. The first phase, in 2009, was to try to charm Beijing and offer it every possible concession - the President not meeting the Dalai Lama, the Secretary of State not raising human rights, and so on. This secured absolutely nothing in return from Beijing. Instead, throughout 2010, Beijing engaged in a great deal of bullying of virtually all its neighbours, getting into disputes with Japan, India, Vietnam, Australia and a number of other nations. The regional nations involved all cleaved much closer to the US.

Washington worked hard to reassure its friends and allies of its staying power and to tell Beijing that it should pull back on the regional bully stuff. It became much more hard-headed in its dealings with Beijing. This culminated in the second phase of policy, the Obama "pivot" towards Asia. This pivot was welcomed by everyone in Asia except China and North Korea (and, apparently, Malcolm Fraser, though he doesn't really count).

Now, in the third stage, the Obama administration is at pains to reassure China that its balancing of Chinese power is matched by positive engagement with China, that it welcomes China's greater role in the world, and that, in Hillary Clinton's words, the Asia-Pacific is big enough for everyone.

What is truly perplexing is not Washington's behaviour, which is clear enough and perfectly modest and responsible, but Beijing's motives.

I have spent the past week in Singapore, which is an excellent place to inquire about China because it has some of the finest think tanks and scholars on China and the region and it is, in a sense, disinterested. It backs neither Western nor Chinese triumphalism. Apart from being an astonishing success story in itself, Singapore has for many decades been a source of serious geo-strategic insight.

At the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Rodolfo Severino told me that it would be a mistake to push China towards legal adjudication or even clarification of its claims in the South China Sea. This would serve only to harden China's claims.

At the East Asian Institute, Zheng Yongnian provided me with a guide to Chinese nationalism and all the different players who now figure in that phenomenon. The professor also concluded that Beijing's recent moves had to be seen against the leadership transition now under way in China.

He described how the Chinese government had done a lot to fan Chinese nationalism, but that this nationalism now was an independent force within Chinese society that its leaders had to reckon with.

One of his most depressing conclusions was that greater democracy in China today would probably lead to greater chaos and violence, and potentially even international conflict.

China's economic development so far, remarkable as it is, is not unique. It follows roughly the pattern of other East Asian economic modernisation. What is different, however, is the lack of social development in China to accompany that economic development. Other East Asian societies also engaged in government-led, at times quite ruthless, capitalist development. But, according to Zheng, they also engaged in great social reform, providing a degree of welfare and social infrastructure such as health and education, as well as a growing substance in citizenship, which China has not emulated.



Thus Chinese feel inherently insecure. There is no welfare net. The vast majority of Chinese are impoverished workers or impoverished rural folk. They don't respect Chinese government institutions, and here corruption is a key.

In Zheng's view, if China were a democracy, the ousted Chongqing Communist Party boss Bo Xilai would be elected president. This is because he had a populist style and engaged in direct income redistribution.

Much of what Bo did was illegal, but there is not a big tradition of respect for the law under communist rule in China.

In this sober analysis, both leftism and nationalism have deep social roots in China, but liberalism is a thing for intellectuals and elites.

The biggest task, in Zheng's view, is that China develop its middle class. "The government is strong, the people are weak," the good professor says. "The government is rich, the people are poor.

"The Chinese middle class does not have institutional protection. It has to pay for everything, education, healthcare."

Although he says he is overall an optimist, Zheng feels "there is a real risk that China could experience a period of social chaos. There is a race between reform and social uprising.

"The most important thing is to grow the middle class. Democracy today would mean more violence, more nationalism. How to manage democratisation is the key task. Nationalism could kill democracy."

And most of the dynamics that govern these matters are internal to China. American policy is not the worry here. Chinese politics is the worry.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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