China needs to lengthen its short fuse


China has generally handled its extraordinary global ascendance with finesse, assuring neighbors that it remains a developing country and is embarked on a “peaceful rise.” This astute policy is informed by the past. Heirs of an ancient civilization, China’s leaders have a keen sense of history, and Chinese strategists have studied the experiences of other rising powers intently.

Britain’s smooth adjustment to being surpassed by the United States in the early 20th century is one case that gained China’s attention. Another, and very different, example is Germany’s bid to challenge France’s position in Europe and Britain’s supremacy at sea in the late 19th century. That latter gambit evoked an alliance among Britain, France and Russia, led to Germany’s encirclement, and eventually to a world war that brought disaster to Europe and defeat to Germany. It need not have been that way. Otto von Bismarck, who unified Germany after Prussia’s defeat of Austria (1866) and France (1871), understood the importance of treading lightly and assuaging the fears of Germany’s neighbors so that they would not join forces and encircle it. Once Kaiser Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck in 1890, he discarded the Iron Chancellor’s strategy and embarked on what proved to be the ruinous path to 1914.

The lesson China seemed to take from these examples is that it should emulate Britain, not Wilhelmine Germany.


But something has changed of late. Beijing’s diplomacy has lost its finesse.

Consider two recent examples. In September, Japan, cowed by China’s chest-thumping, released the captain of the fishing boat it impounded after the vessel strayed into the waters adjoining a clump of islands (Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese) that both Beijing and Tokyo claim but that the latter controls. But that was not enough to placate China’s leaders, who could not resist follow-on opportunities to chastise and snub the Japanese even after Japan’s prime minister backed down and drew fire at home for succumbing to intimidation. And China did not confine itself to diplomatic displays of its displeasure. It barred the sale of rare earth minerals (crucial to the manufacturing of high-tech electronic equipment) to Japan. And despite signals that it was lifting the ban, shipments have not resumed. Beijing seemed unconcerned that other states would be rattled by the ban, given that China accounts for more than 90% of the world’s current supply of this vital raw material.

The second example is the tantrum Beijing threw in October after Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Liu was vilified as a subversive and a criminal merely for writing a manifesto calling for democracy in China. The leaders of a country touted as the next superpower depicted a frail and sick man whom they had already imprisoned as a dire threat. But there was more. Beijing warned the Norwegian government — which does not decide who gets Nobel Prizes — that its relationship with China could be damaged. And it initiated a campaign, which is ongoing, to browbeat European governments into boycotting the December ceremony in Oslo at which Liu will be honored.

Perhaps China’s loss of poise is temporary. Perhaps its leaders are playing to nationalist galleries at home because socialism no longer stirs popular emotions. (But that is a dangerous game; they may be hard-pressed to de-escalate future crises of a more serious nature.) Who knows? What is clear is that Beijing’s over-the-top reaction to what were ultimately trivial disputes that could have been defused calmly has its neighbors concerned.

If China does become the world’s most powerful nation, what would happen if it got angry about something truly important? This is the question being asked in India, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia, the very countries that, no matter what they say to the contrary, are watching China’s ascent with a mix of admiration and unease.

By virtue of geography, these nations are also well positioned to join the United States in an encircling strategy. We’re hardly at that point — China has plenty of carrots and sticks, and its neighbors are too smart to line up mechanically with the United States — but there are signs of nervousness.

India and the United States, estranged for much of the Cold War, now talk of a “strategic” partnership. U.S. arms will soon start flowing to India. President Obama this week endorsed India’s longtime quest for a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Over the last several years, India and Japan, which have had little to do with each other on matters of national security, have engaged in a security dialogue and, together with the United States, joint naval exercises. Washington has not merely mended its fences with Vietnam; it is systematically deepening ties with Hanoi. A shared concern about China is one reason for this. The ban on American arms sales to Indonesia (another country in which suspicions toward China run deep) has been lifted.


These nascent realignments carry risks. Treating China as if it were a potential enemy could turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, leaving everyone worse off. But if this denouement is to be avoided, it’s not enough for other states to eschew worst-case thinking. China needs to regain its composure and revert to its “peaceful rise” playbook — and ruminate anew on Bismarck.

Rajan Menon is a professor of political science at City College of New York/City University of New York.