How did the Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel islands come to replace Taiwan as the main source of tension for maritime Asia? And how are we to explain the fact that China’s foreign policy toward its Asian neighbors has now morphed from such slogans as: “Keep our heads down, and bide our time” of the Deng Xiaoping era, and the notion of “Peaceful rise” elaborated by Hu Jintao as a way to reassure adjacent countries that China’s ascendancy would not spell conflict, to the overtly nationalistic, even truculent, new posturing adopted by the Chinese government over a handful of uninhabited islands?
To have alienated Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Borneo so thoroughly, after having expended so much earlier capital winning their hearts and minds with benevolent soft power efforts, is quite a dramatic turn-around in fortunes.
It is hardly an original insight to suggest that leaders in China, as elsewhere, have often been tempted to turn to nationalism as a binding agent for domestic dissension. And, since these islands raise the always emotional issue of national sovereignty, they do provide a convenient way to outsource targets of people’s more immediate concern, especially at a time when grievances on the home front—from the growing corruption, pollution, inequality, infringements of peoples’ rights, and land confiscations—are proliferating.
But, even if China’s claims to sovereign rights over these far-flung specks of real estate were ultimately to prove justified, does it currently advance China’s national interest to pursue them in such a pugnacious and alienating way? It is hard to give any other answer but: No! Especially since what China has so ardently sought over the past century and a half is not just a restoration of its wealth and power (and ability to protect itself), but global respect. Suffice it to say, there has been precious little global respect to be had for China through such a strategy. So why have they felt compelled to proceed as they have?
I have the distinct sense that the drama we see being acted out in this web of disputes has another dimension, one that is as much psychological as geo-political. Presented at long last with the opportunity to put the shoe on the other foot, certain Chinese leaders feel almost involuntarily that it is now payback time. Indeed, many Chinese people, who have chafed under their country’s history of victimization, may also find the cathartic and gratifying exercise of watching their country’s new power put victoriously to test psychologically irresistible. After all, it is almost axiomatic that the oppressed often develop an irrepressible urge to engage in acts that flirt with rendering they themselves as oppressors as a way to demonstrate that they have irrevocably transcended their humiliating former condition of helplessness.
For China to have been acted upon in as grievous a fashion as it historically has was an undeniably bitter and painful experience, one that may now seem unassuageable except by the kinds of muscle flexing and demonstrations of power which are now being risked in the waters around China. While such acting-out may seem to be justified by sovereign incursion, it also has an undeniable psychological logic that promises a deceptive kind of gratification. But, in the real world of power-political affairs, such acting-out is also dangerous in ways that end up serving no one.
What these island disputes suggests about China is that its search for new wealth and power, fuqiang 富强, born out of an understandable urge to protect “the motherland” from foreign predation as the Qing Dynasty collapsed, may have now passed something of a milestone. Initially inspired by a defensive impulse, one wonders whether it is not now gaining a new and unwelcomed aggressive dimension. If so, should this new impulse not be tempered, it could end up as a serious impediment to the ongoing rise of a China that is viewed as “peaceful” and embraced by its neighbors. This would not only be harmful to China and the Chinese people, but to U.S.-Chinese relations as well as all the people of this increasingly dynamic and important region of our newly globalized world.