November 20, 2011

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Softly, Softly: Beijing Turns Other Cheek — For Now.

The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast. It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud.

The timing turned out to be brilliant. China is in the midst of a leadership transition, when it is harder for important decisions to be taken quickly. The economy is looking shaky, with house prices falling across much of the country. The diplomatic blitzkrieg moved so fast and on so many fronts, with the strokes falling so hard and in such rapid succession, that China was unable to develop an organized and coherent response. And because Wen Jiabao’s appearance at the East Asia Summit, planned long before China had any inkling of the firestorm about to be unleashed, could not be canceled or changed, premier Wen Jiabao was trapped: he had to respond in public to all this while China was off balance and before the consultation, reflection and discussion that might have created an effective response.

Wow. Some actual smart diplomacy, it appears. But beware: “Longer term, the conviction in the military and among hard liners in the civilian establishment that the US is China’s enemy and seeks to block China’s natural rise will not only become more entrenched and more powerful; it will have consequences. Very experienced and well informed foreign diplomats and observers already warn that the military is in many respects becoming independent of political authorities and some believe that like the Japanese military in the 1930s, China’s military or factions within it could begin to take steps on critical issues that the political authorities could not reverse. Islands could be occupied, flags raised and shots fired.”

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