[Viewpoint] Dealing with an assertive China

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[Viewpoint] Dealing with an assertive China

In a speech titled “Getting to Know the Real China” before the United Nations General Assembly, the Chinese prime minister straightforwardly told world leaders that China will not “yield or compromise” when it comes to “sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity.”

He assured that the Chinese government won’t “harm or pose a threat to anyone” with its newfound power and will remain committed to common progress and the prosperity of mankind. But the country will remain steadfast on issues related to “core national interests.”

China, usually realistic and aloof on foreign affairs, tends to be touchy and temperamental on issues related to its turf and territory. It seeks “ontological security” through irredentist claims over Taiwan’s sovereignty and integrating ethnic differences. Its approach is also often on the sensitive side rather than displaying normative diplomatic behavior.

That side manifested itself loud and clear in the recent diplomatic showdown with Japan involving inhabited islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku by the Japanese and Diaoyu by China. The dispute has been longstanding, giving the upper advantage to whoever has the most leverage.

The Cheonan sinking and recent territorial dispute underscored Sino-U.S. bihegemony - at least in the East Asian region. The U.S. overseas military forces, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, will instead reinforce their presence in East Asia in an apparent warning and strategy to fend off China’s rising power in the region.

Senior U.S. officials assured Southeast Asian countries at an Asean security forum in July that the U.S. plans to get actively involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as a peaceful settlement directly affects American interests. Unlike its hands-off stance on the dispute over the Dokdo islets between South Korea and Japan, Washington has clearly taken Japan’s side on the Senkaku dispute out of an obvious political motive to mount political pressure against Beijing. Japan triggered the latest turf war by arresting a Chinese trawler captain caught fishing near the disputed waters. Japanese prosecutors wanted to set a precedent by prosecuting him for illegal fishing in its terrestrial waters. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, still new to his job, had to consider the public consensus.

Beijing politicians were also feeling pressure to comply with demands from the People’s Liberation Army, which has recently turned more assertive, and deal with a nationalistic groundswell timed with the 79th anniversary of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

The usually soft-spoken Chinese premier Wen Jiabao “strongly urged” Japan to immediately and unconditionally release the captain as his government made possible threats - boycotting senior political meetings, ceasing tourism exchanges, conducting audits on Japanese companies and arresting Japanese nationals suspected of spy activities. It ended the game with the latest blow of blocking shipments of rare earths to Japan that can devastate Japan’s electronics industry.

Japan has little advantage left as it desperately needs China to continue purchasing Japanese government bonds to help stop the rise of the yen. But China did not drop the matter, even after Japan freed the captain. It has demanded an apology and compensation - a political warning that it will take similar actions to Japanese intrusions. It has thus started a new round in the dispute.

China’s latest move is rather surprising, considering its usual propensity to play down concerns over its growing dominance in the region. But China needs to send a strong message to the United States and the international community that it cannot compromise over territorial sovereignty. It has called for dialogue among neighboring countries to settle the disputes in the South China waters to keep a U.S. display of power at bay.

The territorial friction between China and Japan will have spillover effects on us as well, since we have had long disputes with China over history and territory. The territorial dispute can exacerbate strained Sino-Korean ties and widen differences over regional issues following Beijing’s backing of North Korea over the Cheonan case.

We are far weaker than Japan in contesting China, a market that accounts for 80 percent of our trade surplus and 24 percent of our outbound shipments. The alliance with the U.S. won’t give enough traction to help us counter the new wave in the Northeast Asian order. We must come up with an entirely new strategy on China so that we can survive together. The powerful and imperative Chinese presence leaves us no other choice.

*The writer is a professor of politics and diplomacy at Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

By Lee Hee-ok
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