EYE ON THE WORLD

China bristles with flawed short-term agenda

China's rise and its global impact should not be exoticised but instead seen as a typical rising power's jostle

THESE are not easy times for China's neighbours. Japan has recently learnt that, apart from its existing territorial dispute with China, its ownership of the Okinawa islands could soon be questioned in Beijing. And India discovered to its dismay a detachment of Chinese soldiers parked on what the Indians consider as their territory.

Both crises were quickly defused: Chinese soldiers withdrew from the disputed border with India, while the Japanese were reassured that the Okinawa islands are not likely to be claimed officially by China, at least not in the near future.

Still, these two disparate episodes rattled many foreign governments. For they undermine the prevailing view that Chinese leaders are inherently cautious and do not act until they have weighed the long-term consequences of their actions. But this view was always a myth which only hindered a true understanding of China's strategic culture.

Why China should be a special case, a country where leaders instinctively shape policies in long timeframes, is still hotly debated among specialists. However, there is broad support for the contention that, while politicians in other countries thump their tables or rush to their guns when confronted by an unexpected crisis, China's leaders remain unflappable until they opt for the appropriate course of action. While governments elsewhere think in terms of just years, China's rulers plan for decades, if not centuries.

Testing this proposition is not just an arid intellectual exercise invented to keep academics in business but a matter of first-rate strategic importance. If it is true that China takes a long view before deciding how to respond to any international crisis, it also follows that the Chinese will be cautious players on the international stage, avoiding unnecessary risks. And it also follows that, once other governments understand what makes China "tick", relations could be both peaceful and predictable.

Less vision, more bungles

THIS image of China as an ancient, sage tortoise which carefully observes the world going by without drawing any conclusions and only moves when it really has to is reinforced by a famous episode from the early 1970s which almost everyone who claims to be a China specialist loves to retell. It involves then US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who asked Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai about his views of the French Revolution. "It's too soon to tell," came Zhou's reply, an apparent example of how long-term and cautious is China's thinking.

The only snag with this story is that it was the product of a simple misunderstanding. Kissinger was indeed referring to the 1789 revolution which toppled the French monarchy. But Zhou thought he was being asked about the French student riots which took place in 1968, just four years before Kissinger visited Beijing. So Zhou's answer had nothing to do with a desire to take a long view on history, and tells us absolutely nothing about China.

But the fact that this story continues to be touted as an example of China's supposedly cautious approach to the world is an indication of a bigger problem: a persistent failure by some China watchers and many governments to acknowledge that, far from being measured, many of China's actions amount to pure brinkmanship based on ignorance of basic facts and kneejerk calculations which simply don't factor in long-term risks.

Examples abound. Take China's 1962 decision to unleash a short, sharp war with India. The operation succeeded in its immediate objective of humiliating the Indians. But it destroyed any hopes for an anti-colonial "brotherhood" between India and China, and condemned the two nuclear nations to permanent military confrontation. The same can be said of the Chinese decision to attack Vietnam in 1979, which created an additional, heavily militarised rival on China's borders.

And the list of China's bungled strategic decisions just seems to get longer. Was it prudent, for instance, to fire live missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996, only to trigger off the biggest US military deployment to Asia since the Vietnam War as two American aircraft carrier groups sailed close to China's coastline? Was it clever for Beijing to rebuff any serious dialogue with the three Japanese prime ministers from the Democratic Party who over the past few years have tried to reach some accommodation with China, since this only resulted in a landslide victory for the more nationalist government of Mr Shinzo Abe? And was it wise for the Chinese to humiliate President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines, elected on a promise to improve relations with China, by presenting him with the "nine-dash map" of territorial demands in the South China Sea?

Flawed power structure

IT COULD be argued that the choice of these examples is highly selective and that, for every crisis bungled, there is at least another crisis which was either averted or defused through Beijing's judicious handling. Correct but not enough. The reality is still that the Chinese have either resorted to the use of force or threatened force with alarming regularity, and on every occasion they either dismissed or seemed entirely oblivious to the serious dangers of escalation. More ominously still, as China grows more and more integrated in the world economy, the number of spats in which military force is either deployed or threatened is rising, rather than tailing off as originally expected.

There are also clear indications that military planners in Beijing seem entirely unfazed by the danger of picking up simultaneous disputes in all directions - that's the only interpretation of the recent decision to send Chinese soldiers into the contested border with India.

None of this should be surprising, since the current Chinese political set-up is actually uniquely ill-equipped for long-term thinking and judicious planning. There are plenty of Chinese think-tanks debating the country's foreign and security policies. However, the reports these think-tanks publish are read more avidly outside China than inside it.

The Chinese foreign ministry conducts foreign policy but does not decide it, in as much as the Chinese defence ministry manages military affairs but does not decide these either. Plenty of information flows into Chinese government, party and security services organisations. Yet it is not at all obvious how this is digested, what analysis is put forward and to whom it is addressed. At the end of the day, crucial strategic decisions are reached by the seven men of the Politburo Standing Committee huddled in Beijing's Zhongnanhai, the same men who must make an estimated 50,000 other decisions on anything from where China's aircraft carrier will be deployed and right down to the supply of pork in Sichuan. It is nonsense to believe that they reach decisions after a judicious and lengthy effort of consultations, or that they agonise over the implications for decades to come.

Awakening hubris

NONE of this means that China's leaders are trigger-happy: given their responsibilities, the size of their country and its complexity, caution is the instinctive, almost default approach to any crisis.

Nevertheless, it is a fallacy to confuse caution with a reluctance to use military force. The only long-term vision which China's leaders have is the maintenance of the Communist Party's control. If that means China must occasionally growl in the direction of its neighbours, so be it.

Either way, the idea that we are dealing with a China ruled by a deliberative leadership - which carefully eschews impulses, diligently weighs up the pros and cons of policy alternatives and carefully comes up with a strategy for decades to come - should now be discarded as a myth which prevents rather than helps countries in managing their approach to Beijing.

For the truth is more humdrum: China's leaders are increasingly taking decisions on the basis of short-term calculations, are determined to let all their neighbours know, and are actually less concerned about their neighbours' reactions, because China is much more powerful.

Call it hubris, if you will. But it's a behaviour very similar to that of any other rising nation in history. The only concept that seems to have died is the idea that China would somehow be different.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com