China’s hardline diplomacy seen as adding to Beijing’s potential isolation

By Christopher Bodeen, AP
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

China seen as isolating self with tough diplomacy

BEIJING — China’s increasingly muscular diplomacy may be repelling its Asian neighbors and pushing them closer to the United States, helping fulfill Beijing’s fears of being systematically encircled by Washington and its allies, analysts say.

From Tokyo to New Delhi, China’s neighbors are registering growing concern over its sharpened territorial claims with many responding by moving closer to Beijing’s chief rival Washington, the traditional guarantor of regional security.

While China and Japan toned down the rhetoric Tuesday in their latest spat over disputed islands, analysts say that the initial harsh response offers Asian nations further reason to question Beijing’s avowed peaceful rise as an influential economic and political player.

“China’s neighbors are already nervous about its territorial claims and the ability of its economic pressures to elicit their compliance in any dispute,” said China expert June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami.

Such deepening concerns could conceivably “hasten the formation of a countervailing coalition detrimental to its interests,” Dreyer said.

China’s assertiveness is a glaring counterpoint to its efforts to upgrade its image as a responsible global power, ranging from aiding flood-hit ally Pakistan to calling for an east Asian economic bloc.

“China’s hard-line policies on territorial issues have put off any such grand designs,” said Boston University professor of international relations Thomas Berger.

Beijing “has taken another big step closer to isolating itself in the region,” Berger said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Tokyo had to make the first move to put diplomatic ties back on track after nearly three weeks of bitterness since Japan detained a fishing captain after his boat collided with two Japanese patrol boats near disputed islands in the East China Sea.

“If Japan values its relationship with China, it should take concrete action to repair ties,” spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news conference. When asked what specific actions Japan had to take, Jiang would not say.

Japan released the captain over the weekend but has rejected demands to make amends. Its Foreign Ministry on Tuesday said Prime Minister Naoto Kan had no plans to meet with his Chinese counterpart at an Asian-European summit in Brussels on Oct. 4-5.

“My impression is that it would be difficult for such talks to be arranged,” Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara said.

The captain’s release has so far failed to ease tensions, with China demanding an apology and compensation. Tokyo has countered by demanding that Beijing pay for damage to the patrol boats from the collisions near islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu and Japanese call Senkaku. Japan controls the islands but China and Taiwan also claim them. They are located 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of Taiwan.

Within days of the incident, Beijing cut off ministerial-level contacts with Japan, repeatedly called in Tokyo’s ambassador to complain, and postponed talks on joint development of undersea natural gas fields. China also detained four Japanese employees of a construction company suspected of entering a military zone without authorization, and quietly halted exports to Japan of rare earth elements, which are essential for making high-tech products.

Beijing’s visceral approach matched its surprisingly strident response this spring to a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan and a meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama. China has yet to restore exchanges with the U.S. military that it severed in response to the arms sale.

China continued to up the ante, elevating its claim to the South China Sea as a top national concern and fiercely denouncing joint U.S.-South Korean naval drills in the Yellow Sea.

Beijing had earlier angered Seoul by refusing to blame ally North Korea for sinking a South Korean naval ship despite evidence presented by an international investigation panel. China’s response helped boost relations between Seoul and Washington, which seemed on the verge of crisis a few years ago.

Beijing’s prickly behavior also has strengthened ties between Washington and Tokyo, with the latest islands standoff prompting the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen to express support for the U.S. treaty ally.

Meanwhile, China’s renewed sovereignty declaration over the South China Sea spurred Southeast Asian nations — which also claim parts of the area — to join the U.S. last week in an extraordinary declaration that disputes in the area be settled peacefully. This was a poke at Beijing, which regards U.S. involvement in the matter as unwelcome outside interference.

China’s ties with India also remain edgy, largely due to what Indian officials claim is increasing assertiveness of Chinese patrols in areas claimed by both sides. Beijing and New Delhi fought a brief but bloody war over a border region in 1963 and multiple rounds of talks on settling the issue have gone nowhere.

Beijing’s hard line caters mainly to a domestic public that wants China to wield political and diplomatic clout commensurate with its economic might. While the communist leadership brooks no political opposition, it is highly attuned to nationalist sentiments and eager to lead public opinion.

Other factors include the influence of the 2.3 million-member People’s Liberation Army, whose officers have been increasingly vocal in stating China’s sovereignty claims and calling for a tougher line on the U.S., Japan, and other nations.

Some scholars also point to rivalries within the Chinese leadership ahead of a generational transition of power in two years time.

“No Chinese leader can afford to be seen as weak on external issues at this moment,” said Drew Thompson, director of China studies at the Nixon Center in Washington.

will not be displayed