Beijing’s muscle-flexing faces a pushback

(This article,  part of a package of stories on the Nobel Prize award for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, was published in DNA on October 10, 2010. The other article, based on Chinese pro-democracy activists’ responses to the award, can be accessed here).

Venky Vembu

Imperial edicts in medieval China typically ended by exhorting lowly subjects to “tremble and obey”; from all available evidence, the edicts had just the desired effect.  In the modern era, however, China’s muscular assertion of its recently acquired economic and political might to get the rest of the world to “tremble and obey” may have run its course and is beginning to face a global pushback, geostrategists and analysts told Sunday DNA.

Even the award of the Nobel Peace Prize for imprisoned Chinese political dissident Liu Xiaobo on Friday, despite brazen Chinese attempts to intimidate the prize committee, is “part of a larger pushback against China by the West and also allies in Asia,” says Dr John Lee, research fellow at The Center for Independent Studies in Sydney and a Visiting Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

That award, the citation for which noted that China’s “new status” entailed “increased responsibility” and drew pointed attention to its breach of international agreements and provisions relating to political rights, compounds the pressures on China on other fronts arising from its continued undervaluation of its currency and its aggressive assertion of its territorial claims on its maritime and land borders, including with India, in recent months.

“It looks like the net around China is closing,” says Jonathan Holslag, research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies and author of China and India: Prospects for Peace. “Clearly, there is a widening gap between how China is developing and how several other countries expect it to develop” 

According to noted Chinawatcher Gordon Chang, that gap is leading the world “to run out of patience” with China. Even last year, when Liu had been nominated for the peace prize, which went instead to US president Barack Obama, “there was still a lot of hope of forward progress in China, but now people are starting to realise there won’t be.”

Lee sees two reasons for China’s “muscular diplomacy” of recent times: after the global financial crisis of 2008, which accentuated the contrast between China’s high-growth economy and the down-and-out debt-burdened economies of the West, “there were strong signs of hubris” among the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). “The PLA is playing a much greater role in setting strategic policy, and as China rises, the CCP is strengthening its hold on economic and political power, not relinquishing it.”

And, adds Lee, “there’s now a belief that the CCP will do whatever it takes to retain political and economic power within China, even if this is against the country’s long-term interest

The nature of such a political system in China – and the ascendance of hardliners and the security apparatus in framing policy – is manifestly causing greater disquiet as China takes a bigger place on the world stage, points out Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

And the fact that for the past few years, the human rights aspect of the Chinese political situation had been overlooked by the West – and even Japan, South Korea and India – may have emboldened hardliners in China, he adds. “At the end of the day, when the chips are down, Chinese leaders knew that the US and Europe would sidetrack human rights issue and talk about trade and economic interests.”

Now that it’s facing a global pushback, how will China respond? “China will diplomatically retreat somewhat – although its currency policy will not change,” reasons Lee. As a “strategically located rising power” with “very poor soft power” leverage, China is “immensely distrusted by all the major powers.” And as a result, Beijing will have no choice but to “pull back the rhetoric and diplomacy a little even if its objectives remain unchanged.”

Chang too reckons that beyond the initial intemperate lashing out, China will momentarily retreat, and instead turn on the ‘charm offensive mode’. “If they see everybody giving them a hard time, they’re going to put on their smiling face again.” But, he cautions, “we need to keep in mind that the smiling face is just a tactic.

How China’s relation with the world plays out will depend on whether China continues to rises under its authoritarian model, reckons Lee. “If it does, there will be an intensification of structural tension between China and the democratic world.”

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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