By Willie Lam
International Herald Tribune
December 20, 2007
Beijing’s decision to cancel a port visit to Hong Kong by the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk last month could go down in diplomatic history as a watershed in China’s foreign policy.
The high-decibel “no” to the carrier group – and also to the U.S. frigate Reuben James, which wanted to dock at Hong Kong on New Year’s Eve – coincides with a tough stance Beijing has assumed in sovereignty disputes with Vietnam over islets in the South China Sea.
China also has reacted with uncharacteristic vehemence to the hospitality that the United States, Canada and especially Germany have shown the Dalai Lama.
It appears that the Chinese Communist Party leaders have decided to flex their muscles in a way they deem commensurate with China’s new-found quasi-superpower status.
The late Deng Xiaoping’s 1990s-era axiom for Chinese diplomats – “keep a low profile and never take the lead” – seems passé. The same is true for Deng’s dictum on how to handle America: “Work on cooperation and avoid confrontation.”
Instead, after decades of teeth-gnashing silence, Beijing is publicly thumbing its nose at what it perceives to be U.S. interference in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
The Kitty Hawk incident coincided with one of the largest shows of force by the Chinese military this year, a war game over vast swaths of the South and East China Seas. Crack units from four major People’s Liberation Army divisions test-fired Russian-procured and indigenously developed hardware, including 022 stealth missiles and Russian-made SS-N-27 “Club” anti-ship cruise missiles.
Apart from simulating a naval blockade of Taiwan, the exercises were meant to warn Washington and Japan against “meddling” in the Taiwan Strait.
It did not appear accidental that the United States, in apparent protest over the Kitty Hawk incident, had the carrier sail through the Strait on the way back to its base in Yokosuka, Japan.
That move prompted Beijing to express “serious concern,” implying that foreign vessels wishing to traverse the strait had to seek China’s approval, even though the strait has always been regarded as international waters.
The Taiwan-related war games extended well beyond the Taiwan Strait. The PLA conducted exercises near the Paracel Islands, claimed by Vietnam, drawing a protest from Hanoi.
In a related development, thousands of Vietnamese held demonstrations earlier this month outside the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi over Beijing’s establishment of the new Sansha municipality in Hainan Province, which will have jurisdiction over three islets Vietnam claims in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos.
PLA forces also demolished a few unmanned Indian forward posts near two Indian bunkers in the vicinity of the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet border. The Indian media reported that Beijing told New Delhi that the bunkers violated Chinese territorial integrity.
And China adopted what analysts called an unusually strident stance at the recent annual China-EU summit meeting in Beijing. The deputy prime minister in charge of foreign trade, Wu Yi, heatedly disputed remarks made by the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, on Beijing’s supposed failure to stem the export to Europe of “a tidal wave of counterfeit goods.”
Moments after Mandelson finished his speech, Wu rushed to his side and issued a verbal protest. “I am extremely dissatisfied”‘ with Mandelson’s speech, she told astounded reporters.
While meeting EU leaders, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao launched a strong attack on Chancellor Angela Merkel for according VIP treatment to the Dalai Lama. He demanded that Berlin “acknowledge and rectify” its mistakes.
Beijing’s high-profile quarrels with the United States, Vietnam and Germany have followed a pattern of power projection that began last January when PLA missiles downed an old weather satellite. The feat, widely perceived in the West as the start of the PLA’s militarization of space, was followed by the successful launching of the country’s first lunar probe.
Moreover, the PLA has departed from its usual protocol of keeping new weapons under wraps. Semi-official military Web sites have recently showcased soon-to-be-deployed hardware ranging from the Jian-12 jet fighter to the Jin-class submarine, which is said to carry nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
According to Hong Yuan, a military expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the defense concerns of the new leadership and the force projection “have gone way beyond the Taiwan Strait.” Hong sees the next five years as “a period of rapid development in areas ranging from the PLA’s establishment, institutions and hardware to the extent and means of force projection.”
The show of strength also bolsters the leadership at home at a time when old Marxist values are losinmg their luster. As Wen said at the ceremony marking China’s impending conquest of the moon, the achievement was “a major manifestation of the increase in our comprehensive national strength and the ceaseless enhancement of our innovative ability.”
Beijing is undoubtedly aware that such assertiveness could feed fears abroad of a “China threat.” But both the Communist Party and the Army leaders seem convinced that this is the price the reinvigorated dragon has to pay to keep its place in the sun.
Willy Lam is an adjunct professor of China studies at Akita International University, Japan, and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
From Peace and Freedom: Our thanks to Professor Lam.