Wary Asian leaders ramp up the rhetoric
WORLD VIEW:Changes of political leadership in China, Japan and South Korea have brought to power three figures who have each gained support by encouraging more nationalistic responses to their respective territorial disputes. It is a sharp reminder that in east and southeast Asia security issues that divide neighbours vie with the more powerful economic ones that brought them closer together in the last 15 years.
One of Xi Jinping’s first official outings as the new Chinese Communist Party leader was a visit to the national museum where he and his six ruling colleagues saw an exhibition on Chinese history since 1840. Xi praised national revival, saying “it has become clear that a weak nation would be the target of bullying, and only development can make it stronger”.
That theme of national weakness, victimhood and bullying is a central ingredient of the recent Chinese patriotism promoted by the party. But its popular expression can run beyond control, as can its app- lication by zealous provincial, naval and marine authorities.
This was seen in the many recent protests against Japanese companies and in several incidents as the row over the disputed Diaoyu/ Senkaku islands escalated during the autumn. Controlled by Japan since 1895 and claimed by China on the basis of a longer historical association, the islands lie amid rich fishing waters in an area with large reserves of oil and gas.
The protests followed Japan’s nationalisation of two islands hitherto privately owned. It formed the background to the Liberal Democrats’ election campaign which saw party leader Shinzo Abe sworn in this week with an electoral mandate of assertive nationalism and economic revival. He is pledged to rewrite Japan’s pacifist constitution and increase military spending. Rows with South Korea over another group of islands and the historical legacy of Japanese imperialism also feed into this mix. So does North Korea’s successful recent launch of a ballistic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
Seen from South Korea and Japan, China looks like a colossus, rapidly emerging from backwardness to assume a bullying posture – in stark contrast to its self-perception, for how can so weak and underdeveloped a state be a bully? Chinese propaganda instead projects that role on to the United States, all the more so since President Barack Obama reasserted its Asian vocation during his first term, pointedly reinforced when he went to several Asian meetings immediately after he was re-elected.
The more China asserts its rights over strategic islands in east and southeast Asia lying in the middle of major trade routes, the more states such as South Korea and Japan or, farther south, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, tilt back towards the US to balance Chinese power.
Chinese pressure on the Cambodian chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in July prevented it issuing a joint summit communique for the first time. Since then the various regional organisations in Asia have seemed incapable of resolving such disputes, underlining the contrast between their economic and security/political roles.
Analysts detect a clear tension between them. “Economic Asia” has created many more lines of communication and co-operation in the last 15 years to match its 53 per cent trade integration and $19 trillion annual turnover in what is now the world’s most dynamic region.
These efforts are deepening as Japan, China and South Korea pursue a free trade agreement and Asean launches an Asian trade initiative designed in part to head off a US-sponsored Pacific one, even as the island rows intensify.
Whether all this is compatible with the disarray of “Security Asia”, inhabited by mistrustful powers prone to nationalist rhetoric, spending twice as much on defence now as a decade ago and with many states in growing need of US military guarantees, remains to be seen.
Obama’s new Asian commitments are costly too. The current fiscal cliff crisis in Washington would cut production of fighter planes and submarines required to police Asian trading routes. It raises questions in China and elsewhere on whether a declining US “paper tiger” can afford such a role, tempting hawks to think of limited wars, which would not attract US retaliation, to bolster new leaderships. More realistic voices know the US would have to maintain its credibility by responding militarily.
Obviously this is potentially dangerous territory unless creative diplomacy is applied. Each of the new leaders knows how economic and security imperatives work against one another and how they could imperil the greater prosperity they have all enjoyed. It is a great challenge for China and the US to help the region find political solutions to these conflicts rather than drifting to war.