China, Japan and the Irate Rise

There’s a conventional wisdom forming that in releasing the detained Chinese trawler captain, Japan backed down to Chinese pressure and as a result “lost” the confrontation. This is probably true from a short-term perspective, but the proof of the pudding will be whether Japan, in future, concedes on both the issue at hand — sovereignty over the disputed islands — and the broader issue that is China’s reach for regional dominance.

I don’t think either of those are likely. And I think John McCreary sums up nicely why that is:

The Chinese have overreached in their dealings with Japan, Southeast Asia and South Asia. As long as the Chinese advanced their influence through economic aid and development, they made friends and acquired influence. In switching to a more aggressive and brittle position on issues of maritime sovereignty, they have confirmed all the worst disdain of Chinese ethnocentrism and arrogance. The Chinese shifted tactics too soon.

Like everyone else in Asia, Japanese strategists must ask themselves whether China’s current behavior portends its future posture, and whether the current security architecture or some other potential one can potentially offer Japan protection in the event it does. The answers to those questions are open to debate. (Indeed, a fascinating and very informative one has been taking place on just this subject at the Lowy Interpreter regarding Australia’s strategic calculus.)

But one thing is certain: China’s current behavior is certainly adding urgency to the search for hedging strategies. Those strategies will take time to emerge, whether it comes to finding alternative sources of rare earth minerals, or alternative ways of containing China’s assertiveness regarding territorial claims. And in the meantime, China’s economic influence, which is the real Trojan Horse, will inevitably grow.

But those hedging strategies will emerge. The parallel here, even if the scale is off by an order of magnitude, is the U.S. following the invasion of Iraq. Clearly, U.S. power and influence took a hit because of the subsequent global backlash against the unilateral use of force. The same is certain to be true of China’s recent unilateral muscle-flexing. And as McCreary says, Beijing’s tactical shift has come too soon.