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Beware a revanchist China

by John Lee

In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Feb. 22, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe informed the audience of officials, experts and journalists that Japan is “back” and will not stand down in its ongoing sovereignty dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. With Chinese provocations on the rise, U.S. President Barack Obama, Abe’s host, appealed for calm and restraint on both sides.

Japan is likely to accede — grudgingly — to America’s request, as it remains dependent on its alliance with the United States for its security. But it will be much more difficult to persuade China that it should stand down.

China’s assertiveness over its sovereignty claim reflects more than a desire to exploit seabed resources, or to gain a widened strategic gateway into the western Pacific. It is also about national renewal and rejuvenation — the core of the Chinese Communist Party’s raison d’etre. Turning away from a fight with its former occupier and historical rival would be a step backward in this six-decade-long quest.

The idea of Chinese renewal or rejuvenation was popularized by then-Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in the late 1980s, and frequently promoted by Presidents Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Most recently, incoming President Xi Jinping, visiting the National Museum of China’s “Road Toward Renewal” exhibition, pledged to continue the “great renewal of the Chinese nation.”

What does “renewal” or “rejuvenation” mean to the Chinese? All nations — great and small — embody a combination of historical fact and myth. In this case, the CCP’s view of rejuvenation is built on the belief that the zenith of Chinese power under the Ming and Qing dynasties represents the natural, just, and permanent state of affairs for a 5,000-year-old civilization.

When Mao Zedong took power in 1949, his immediate goal was to re-establish the “greater China” of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), insisting that the Manchu-led empire was the permanent and enduring China. But, while the assault on the Qing Dynasty by foreign powers is a historical fact, the notion that there has been one enduring China struggling against avaricious outsiders across several millennia is false and self-serving.

Mao achieved his goal following the so-called peaceful liberation of the East Turkestan Republic (now Xinjiang) in 1949 and the invasion of Tibet in 1950, which promptly increased China’s size by more than one-third. And every CCP leader since has carried forward his vision of a greater China, adjusting and expanding it as the country’s power grows. For example, China showed little interest in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands prior to 1968 — the year a geographical study pointed to vast oil reserves beneath the seabed.

The same can be said for China’s growing stridency with respect to its claims in the South China Sea. In 2009, relying heavily on a dubious historical claim, China formally tabled its “nine-dotted line” map to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and has since referred to almost all of the South China Sea as being under its “indisputable sovereignty.”

Having dominated East and Southeast Asia for all but the last two centuries of the past two millennia, China is chafing at the current U.S.-led regional order of sovereign states, in which even the smallest enjoys the same rights, privileges, and protection as the largest. Modern China has benefited enormously from this arrangement; nonetheless, there is keen resentment that the Chinese civilization-state’s vast achievements over several thousand years offer China no special status.

To a people imbued with a deep sense of superior moral worth, historical achievement and victimization by foreign powers, this state of affairs is unjust and unnatural. It follows that pulling back from any territorial dispute with smaller and inferior states would be seen as a humiliating defeat, rather than a step toward ensuring long-term regional stability.

Moreover, an expanding view of greater China implies that a resolution of the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in China’s favor would be likely to embolden rather than satisfy its ambitions. Making good on its claim to the South China Sea could be next.

As Obama and Abe forge a common strategy aimed at helping to manage China’s rise peacefully, they must understand that China’s conception of renewal seeks to resurrect a glorious past, and that this implies revision, not affirmation, of the existing regional order. This means that they will have to limit China’s strategic and military options, even if they cannot constrain its ambitions.

John Lee is a fellow and professor at the Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a nonresident scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra. © 2013 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesobh James Ong

    It is very clear from the stance of US in supporting
    Japan in its control of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is the containment of Chinese military expansion within the first island chain. US’ purpose is to restrict Chinese navy vessels heading to the Pacific and to safeguard U.S. strategic assets all the way to the American military facility in Guam.

    However, China’s claim to Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is legitimised by post-war international order of the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Proclaimation, which says particularly that the territories of China which were occupied by Japan before WW2 must return to China.

    Though the world had gone through two world wars, US
    and Japan are still eager to provoke China to a war, and possibly to another world war. Abe has in mind to bring to fruition, a “democratic diamond security,” which is basically an anti-China military alliance. His warmongering attitude is further strengthened with his attempts to influence and lure ASEAN nations to his side in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands’ dispute with China.

    • JimmyJM

      Professor Lee’s analysis is spot on. The following reply is nothing but the usual party dogma with little if any research behind it. China must mature in its relations with all countries. China does not own the world and the world owes China nothing. It is time China learned to be a responsible citizen both in Asia and of the world.

    • Brian

      Under international law, the Cairo Declaration and Potsdam Declaration do not hold significant meaning, as they are merely documents of intent, and are not binding.

    • Brian

      The Senkaku islands were brought under Japanese control before the Treaty of Shinmoneseki of 1895; therefore the Senkaku islands were not considered a part of either declaration, even if the declarations were deemed to be binding.

    • Christopher-trier

      Most of the world supports Japan in this matter. As China continues to provoke and antagonise the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and other countries in the region it is only natural that they will begin banding together more closely in an alliance. They might not always like each other but they’re all subject to Chinese aggression. Chinese warmongering will not make any friends or allies, no matter how much the Chinese hypocritically accuse the Japanese of doing what they themselves do. It’s a matter of discrediting the enemy by accusing her or him of doing what you yourself are doing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.takada Jeff Takada

      By your definition of the Potsdam Declaration (it was not a binding treaty), China could have a claim on the whole Ryukyu archipelago as a former tributary state of Imperial China…or was that where you were going with your specious claim?

  • Hongkie jj

    john, look at the big picture. who started this and why ? That I think you should ponder thoroughly. As far as implying and endorsing full containment policy to limit China strategic military options will not work and pretty naive I would say. Perhaps you should re-evaluate your comment. Making such comments will not help but to create more tension.

    Why dont you try something different and propose some ideas on how to resolve this issue rather than adding more oil to fire. Why not comment on what Abe is saying lately. Does he sounds like he is calm and wants to resolve the issue ??

    As an elected leader of Japan, the prime minister of Japan, Abe should refrain from making stupid headlines accusation from one story to another. Best that Abe keep a low profile and stop beating the drum. Apparently he has forgotten about what he had said in Washington just last week ago.

    China on their part should also lower the temperature. China is not perfect and neither you and Japan or USA are roses.

  • 思德

    China has only half learned from Japan what happens when you let pig headed imperialists run their country. They’re at least not stupid enough to invade another country (although, I’m sure some of the hawks are salivating over the possibility of a “remember the maine!” moment in the South China Sea). The ensuing destruction would mess up their modernization timetable and potentially destabilize things enough for a regime change. That’s not something they want. Maybe after another generation or two of princelings running their country, the Chinese will wake up.

  • Down under

    The article failed to touch the fundamentals of this escalation of the dispute, the nationalisation of the disputed islands by Japanese government last year. This provocation,set against the atrocity of the Japanese invasion of China which ended with WWII is the root of the problem. John Lee does not have a real understanding of the issue.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.takada Jeff Takada

      How precisely does one nationalize land areas already under their sovereign and UN-recognized control? Nationalization implied force used between two national groups. This was a transaction between a private Japanese group and a public one. I supposed you’d be upset if the US government bought the Florida Keys from private citizens and Cuba had a fit because of the atrocity of the (terrible, but ancient) invasion of Cuba 100 years ago.