Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Smaller nations eye China's rise nervously

Sep 29, 2010

Beijing must reassure neighbours it will not be a regional bully


By Peh Shing Huei

IN 1944, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill met at the Moscow Conference and decided on how to divide south-eastern Europe into spheres of influence.

The result was the infamous 'Percentages Agreement', where the then Soviet Union would have 90 per cent influence in Romania, Britain 90 per cent in Greece, and 50-50 shared between the two great powers in Hungary and Yugoslavia.

Churchill scribbled the division on a piece of paper, Stalin gave it a tick.

'Might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues so fateful to millions of people in such an offhand manner? Let us burn the paper,' said Churchill.

It is rather cynical. But such is the reality of international relations. Big powers decide and small countries, well, live with it.

And as the world watches the seeming day-by-day growth of China into a new big power, the wonder is how this latest member of the 'big boys' club' will decide the fates of the smaller countries, especially those in the region.

The events of the past few months have not generated a lot of confidence. Beijing has shown it is increasingly assertive and intransigent in its diplomacy, making Asian countries nervous that a strong China would be a regional bully.

Even when dealing with a rival like Japan, which can hardly be described as a small country, China has been hard.

It stepped up the pressure at the weekend despite the release of the Chinese fishing boat captain who was detained in Japan after his trawler was involved in a collision with Japanese coast guard boats near disputed islands.

Beijing demanded an apology and compensation, and released a foreign policy White Paper on Sunday reiterating that the Diaoyu Islands - which the Japanese call the Senkaku Islands - are a part of China's territorial integrity, sovereignty and development.

This comes just two months after China clashed with several Asean countries over the South China Sea, another dicey territorial dispute.

Beijing lays claim to nearly 80 per cent of the disputed waters and has insisted the matter be discussed bilaterally with the claimant states.

But that has not gone down well with the smaller Asean countries, which fear being overwhelmed when going one-on-one with the Chinese.

Vietnam successfully tabled the issue at a regional forum, with the United States lending support by terming the sea a 'national interest'.

China was peeved. Strident commentaries were carried in the country's state media and military drills were launched in the South China Sea with submarines, warships and guided missiles.
A furious Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was reported to have remarked in the Asean regional meeting that 'China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact'.

If China wanted to send out a message to the world that it was a big power no longer to be messed around with, it was heard loud and clear.

More troublingly, some are now wondering if China is a big power that does not want to play by the same rules as the others, particularly smaller neighbours.

Not that such double standards are entirely new in global politics. Other big powers are also prone to doing things their way, never mind international norms.

The United States, for example, has been consistently ignoring international law, not ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

By exploiting a loophole in the latter, the US has sent its military surveillance vessels into the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries, especially China's, to listen for Chinese submarines.
In a recent New York Times article, an unnamed senior Obama administration official who often deals with the Chinese leadership was quoted as saying: 'As they (the Chinese) begin to manage their many constituencies, their politics is looking more like ours.'

Some would say China abides by international laws more than the US has thus far. But it would not be a surprise if it increasingly follows the American example of going its own way.

Beijing sees itself as a rightful leader of Asia. With its growing economic and military power, it may become less tolerant of dissent and disagreement from the smaller powers and nations, and impatient with global rules it deems shaped by the West and unfair to China.

It is a big power today. But as Spider-Man would say, with great power comes great responsibility.

It is true the Americans themselves have behaved as global policemen who played by their own rules in the last decades. But they have also shown discipline and restraint, enabling peace and development in Asia.

And that is what the Chinese must seek to achieve as a big power in Asia, assuring its smaller neighbours that while it wants, even demands, influence and sway in the region, it has no intention of invading or overwhelming smaller states by force.

Given the historical baggage and territorial disputes such as those in the South China Sea, this will be no easy task. This requires Beijing to tread even more carefully as the elephant of the region if it wants to win over smaller neighbours.

A big power can brandish the stick often and adopt a hawkish all-or-nothing stance towards its territories. But sometimes, cooperation and a friendlier stance go a long way. For example, an agreement to mutually develop the disputed areas for the time being could yield more than commercial dividends.

That was what the late paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping advised when he visited Tokyo in 1978, saying wisely that the Diaoyu dispute should be shelved and solved by later generations.
Asian countries accept China's growing clout. How much they come to welcome or resent it, however, depends on China's behaviour as it grows in power.

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