WATERLOO, Ontario — At the inaugural Singapore Global Dialogue on Sept. 23-24, there was a sharp exchange between retired Chinese and Japanese officials. In response to a question after his opening keynote address, former Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan admonished Japan for its inexplicable stance over the uninhabited but disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, the detention of the captain of the Chinese trawler that had collided with Japan Coast Guard vessels on Sept. 7, and the decision to try him in a Japanese court. He demanded the immediate and unconditional release of the captain.
I shared a panel with Hitoshi Tanaka, Japan’s former deputy foreign minister. The audience expected a rebuttal from him but instead he announced, to scattered applause, that just minutes ago, Japan had decided to release the captain. He called the incident a misunderstanding in the context of a leadership challenge in Japan. Because Japan effectively controls the islands, he said, Tokyo had no intention of making an issue of it.
Chinese Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, who had drawn attention recently by warning Washington that any U.S. attack on China over Taiwan would invite a nuclear response, bluntly told Tanaka to stop spreading lies. The islands had been taken by Japan during the Sino-Japanese war in 1893 but should have been returned to China in accordance with international agreements, he insisted.
The broader context to the diplomatic spat is the big global geopolitical shift under way. U.S. influence and prestige have fallen, but it remains the most influential international and the only truly global actor; Japan continues its slow decline; Russia is marking time; Europe’s reach is strangely shorter than its grasp; India is starting to recapture world attention and interest; and the real winner is China with an ascendant economy, growing poise and expanding soft-power assets.
Driven by strategic narcissism, the $3 trillion wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped to bankrupt America, which, by outsourcing manufacturing to China and services to India, has enfeebled its capacity to produce enough goods and services to pay its bills. The demonstration of the limits to U.S. power in Iraq and Afghanistan has left others fearful of U.S. power. Abusive practices in the war on terror and the global financial collapse have made them less respectful of American values. Their own resilience through the financial crisis has enhanced their self-confidence.
China has strongly outpaced the industrial world in GDP and trade. It is no longer dependent on U.S. markets, managerial knowhow and technology, nor on U.S. power as a counterweight to a Soviet threat. It will be the major player in setting energy, mineral and commodity prices. The process, structures and rules of the game of international politics must be accommodated to China’s growing clout.
China has become much more assertive on a range of issues around the world. From the Copenhagen climate-change conference to Internet freedom, relations with India, and territorial disputes with Asian countries in the South China Sea, Chinese officials and analysts from its state-funded think tanks have issued a string of tough statements.
Against this backdrop, the trigger to the initially measured but increasingly harsh denunciations of Japan over the fishing captain was not so much his detention as the decision to charge him in a Japanese court of law. This was interpreted as a formal assertion of Japanese sovereignty over a disputed territory that could not go unchallenged. The strident rhetoric was matched by concrete retaliation in the form of stopping shipments of rare-earth minerals, suspending unrelated negotiations, and arresting visiting Japanese private sector employees. Japan had badly miscalculated China’s sensitivity and bargaining leverage and overestimated its relative negotiating strength.
Tokyo capitulated and the shock waves are still rippling across the world. The consequences will be manifold. The new government has been humiliated domestically and denounced bitterly by political opponents and commentators. It totally mishandled the incident. Past practice has been to stop Chinese fishermen but not arrest them. Tokyo raised the ante and Beijing called its bluff.
But the same government had been calibrating relations away from Washington toward Beijing. That will now be reversed. China’s demands for an apology and compensation have been brusquely rejected. The long-standing U.S. alliance will be strengthened. Sentiment in favor of an independent nuclear capacity will gather force. The Japanese elite is quite capable of deciding on this regardless of public opinion, without taking the public into confidence.
Other Asia-Pacific governments will accelerate the shift in respectful attention from Tokyo to Beijing. But they too will reaffirm, by word and deed, the value of an ongoing U.S. military presence and role in the region. Recent statements from senior U.S. officials suggest Washington’s openness to such overtures.
Instead of demonstrating unlimited U.S. power, Iraq and Afghanistan brutally exposed the limits to U.S. capacity to impose American will on local populations willing to fight back. China has been busy exploiting commercial opportunities behind U.S. Army lines in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as also in Iran. Beijing reaps the rewards where Washington pays in blood and treasure.
Professor Paul Kennedy’s thesis of implosion caused by unavoidable overreach by the logic of imperial rise and fall may yet prove correct, but not anytime soon. Washington can still veto most international action and no major world problem can be settled by working against it. The U.S. remains the guarantor of the trans-Atlantic, trans- Pacific and trans-American security orders.
Washington will likely recalibrate relations with Beijing to avoid bankrolling its only serious geopolitical rival in the foreseeable future. When China declared the South China sea a “core interest,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded by declaring the area to be part of U.S. national interests and offered to mediate in the disputes.
The risk of offending Beijing is outweighed by the need to reassure other Asian governments and peoples.
As the decade of strategic distraction comes to an end, Washington may rediscover the geopolitical importance of Asia-Pacific to its enduring interests. The new world order will pivot on its relations with Beijing. Violent conflict is not in any country’s interest or intention, but could erupt from accident, miscalculation, miscommunication — or hubris.
Ramesh Thakur is a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, and a former U.N. assistant secretary general.