China’s tiger-rabbit heart

by Brahma Chellaney

NEW DELHI — By roaring at its neighbors and picking territorial fights with them, China lived up to the year of the tiger that 2010 represented in its astrology. An increasingly assertive China also strained its relations with the United States and Europe, while its resource extraction-centered outreach to Africa brought about fresh tensions over what many locals see as a neocolonial strategy.

Now in 2011, the year of the rabbit, will China emulate that burrowing animal? Will it mean more tunnels being burrowed in the Himalayas for river diversion and other strategic projects? And “carrots” (rabbit’s favorite) being demanded from neighbors and the rest of the world for eschewing irascible behavior?

If the Chinese leadership were forward-looking, it would use the year of the rabbit — which begins Feb. 3 — to make up for the diplomatic imprudence of 2010 that left an isolated China counting only the problem states of North Korea, Pakistan and Burma as its allies. The onus now is clearly on a rising China to show that it wants to be a responsible power that seeks rules-based cooperation and acts with restraint and caution.

But the military’s growing political clout and the sharpening power struggle in the runup to the major leadership changes scheduled to take place from next year raise concerns that the world will likely see more of what made 2010 a particularly tigerlike year when China frontally discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “tao guang yang hui” (conceal ambitions and hide claws).

A tiger’s claws are retractable, but China has taken pride more in baring them than in drawing them in. On a host of issues — from diplomacy and territorial claims to trade and currency — China spent 2010 staking out a more muscular role that only helped heighten international concerns about its rapidly accumulating power and unbridled ambition.

Nothing fanned international unease and alarm more than Beijing’s disproportionate response to the Japanese detention of a fishing trawler captain last September. While Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s standing at home took a beating for his meek capitulation to Chinese coercive pressure, the real loser was China, in spite of having speedily secured the captain’s release.

Japan’s passivity in the face of belligerence helped magnify Beijing’s hysterical and menacing reaction. In the process, China not only undercut its international interests by presenting itself as a bully, but it also precipitately exposed the cards it is likely to bring into play when faced with a diplomatic or military crisis next — from employing its trade muscle to inflicting commercial pain to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource, rare earth minerals. Its resort to economic warfare, even in the face of an insignificant provocation, has given other major states advance notice to find ways to offset its leverage, including by avoiding any commercial dependency and reducing their reliance on imports of Chinese rare earths. A more tangible fallout has been that China is already coming under greater international pressure to play by the rules on a host of issues where it has secured unfair advantage — from keeping its currency substantially undervalued to maintaining state subsidies to help its firms win major overseas contracts.

No less revealing has been the gap between China’s words and the reality. For example, China persisted with its unannounced rare earth embargo against Japan for weeks while continuing to blithely claim the opposite in public — that no export restriction had been imposed. Like its denials last year on two other subjects — the deployment of Chinese troops in Pakistani-held Kashmir to build strategic projects and its use of Chinese convicts as laborers on projects in some countries too poor and weak to protest — China has demonstrated a troubling propensity to obscure the truth.

Despite the battering to China’s international image — which has sunk to its lowest point since after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of prodemocracy protesters — there is little prospect of 2011 becoming a course-correction year for it.

The high turnover of leaders scheduled to occur at different levels during 2012-2013 has set in motion within the Chinese Communist Party an intense jockeying for promotion, with senior functionaries engaged in competitive pandering to nationalistic sentiment.

Paradoxically, the more overtly China has embraced capitalism, the more indigenous it has become ideologically. By progressively turning their back on Marxist dogma — imported from the West — the country’s ruling elites have put Chinese nationalism at the center of their political legitimacy. The new crop of leaders, including President Hu Jintao’s putative successor, Xi Jinping, will bear a distinct nationalistic imprint.

That suggests that China’s increasingly fractious relations with its neighbors, the U.S. and Europe will likely face new challenges in 2011. As the Chinese leadership prepares for the 18th Party Congress next year, it may find it difficult to resist flaunting the country’s newfound power.

China could go for the home run in 2012, the year of the dragon — the monster that has been universal since before biblical times. As the 50th year of China’s military attack on India, 2012 will be especially important in Asia, because the declared intent of that war — “to teach a lesson” — was repeated in the 1979 Chinese aggression against Vietnam and appeared to guide Beijing’s top-heavy response in the more recent boat incident with Japan.

Brahma Chellaney is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut.”