Saturday, 30 November 2013

Dealing with China

One week ago, China announced to the world that its unilaterally declared Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) had just come into force. This clear attempt to change the regional status quo was initially met with derision and rejection – but in the long term, it might actually turn out to be a significant turning point for China and the region.

Two days afterwards, South Korea summoned a Chinese diplomat in protest. On the 26th a South Korean military plane flew through the zone without adhering to China's demands; on the same day, two unarmed US bombers did likewise. It seemed as though China's attempt at gunboat diplomacy had, as it were, tanked.

But recent developments are starting to suggest that this may not be the case.

The somewhat incendiary move is the latest in a string of spats between China and Japan over a few very small islands. As a British political trainee-aficionado, I'm familiar with unseemly spats over small islands, although in this case they really are minuscule; in fact, they're uninhabited.

The conflict is entirely one of conflicting nationalisms and of regional power struggle. China is seeking to assert itself as the dominant power in the region. Japan is thus far having none of it.

And the international response to China's announcement has so far been entirely reproachful. Australia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Germany, the EU, the US and, of course, Japan have all condemned and/or defied the unilateral move.

It's easy to see why. This uncompromising stance from China admits of only two likely futures. If China is judged to have overreached itself, regional tensions will rise, possibly leading to conflict. But if China is judged to be sufficiently powerful, its claim will stand and the power balance in East Asia will have been significantly shifted in their favour.

If the latter course is followed, China will have made clear that Japan must ultimately submit to it as the regional power, while the US will also have to accept that in the East China Sea, the buck now stops in Beijing, not Washington.

To put it bluntly, this ostensibly small and parochial move from China may actually reveal a major policy shift in Beijing towards asserting their regional power more forcefully.

This is worrying from a British perspective, as our government has been busily trying to cosy up to China of late. It is no easy task, given the country's terrible human rights image, frosty diplomatic relations and China's often petulent behaviour towards Britain. Back in 2009, they shot to death a mentally ill British man after a flawed trial to emphasise, apparently, the fact that they could.

Yet the UK has been making all the right noises to China: the Mayor of London has been wooing Beijing, the Chancellor has invited Chinese investment in Hinkley Point C and the Prime Minister will next week lead a vast trade delegation to China. And he has made clear he won't be stopping for lunch with the Dalai Lama.

This cap-in-hand realism from Britain is easy to decry but, ultimately, is further proof that our days of gunboats and trade superiority look like they're behind us, while China's lie ahead.

But if Britain's capitulation is a tough tonic to imbibe, last night's declaration from the US will make you spurt out your tea in shock.

American civilian aeroplanes have been instructed by the US State Department to follow China's demands. This concession is huge. Either there has been a failure of communication (I expect this to be likely, and for 'clarification' to follow swiftly) or the US has just made its biggest concession of power for years.

Either way, neither Great Britain nor the United States seem eager or even willing to directly challenge China's newly found belligerence.

And if yesterday's US comments are what they appears to be, future history books may very well say that there, written between the lines of a slipped-out US statement on civilian airline flight plans, lies the moment when US hegemony officially ended and China's peaceful rise officially got serious.

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