China: We bully because we were bullied

Last week, ahead of the opening of the National People’s Conference, a spokeswoman for the country’s legislature laid out China’s position on security in  the region.

China seeks to solve disputes through negotiation and diplomacy, National People’s Congress spokeswoman Fu Ying said…

“Historically China has had weak national defense, and was subject to the hurtful lessons of bullying,” Fu told a briefing in Beijing. “Chinese people’s historical memories of this problem are deep, so we need a solid national defense.”

Solid defense is a fair enough goal, given China’s history. But it’s the volatile nature of resolving issues through action on the high seas, rather than through diplomacy, that is causing the alarm. China seems to have little appetite for diplomacy with either Vietnam or the Philippines.

A revealing exchange to me, is the idea that there can be little historical precedent for China’s development.

Asked about political reform, Fu said China would not copy the model of other countries.

“You cannot say that if China’s reform is not following the model of other countries then China is not following political reform,” she said. “This is unfair and not correct.”

Indonesia-Japan agree to defence cooperation

Japan and Indonesia are taking small steps in the area of cooperating on defence. This is reminder for anyone who thinks Japan’s past role in the Asian region will prevent them from building ties today. The cooperation appears modest – disaster relief and counter terrorism. But the shared interests are apparent.

The equation is simple: with the exception of China and Korea, historical anger about Japan’s role in WWII becomes less intense now that fears for China are escalating. 

Without a doubt, the Indonesians have felt the squeeze of the Chinese power. While Japan, since rebuilding, has been very much inside the international, multilateral framework that China is outside of. And these movements on defence diplomacy are a reminder of sea change that is gripping the region. 

“As the two countries have observed Indonesia-Japan ties are very good, robust and improving, especially in the sectors of defense and military,” Yudhoyono said upon welcoming his Japanese guests.

Separately, this article from Australia makes a good point about how some nations in the region, New Zealand, but also a lesser degree Australia, have in recent years bought into the notion that they are “post-modern” states that have little need for a military, as war itself is somewhat an outdated notion.

The thought reveals the far-flung perspective of the far-flung countries, which possibly more than the Europeans and Americans, have seized on more completely the mantra that a world of globalised trade could not possibly devolve into conflict. And yet, it underscores a naivete that is compounded by the distance and rosy scenarios of businessmen. I suppose countries like Indonesia knows a little about the risks based on geography. And for that reason, making common cause, in a limited capacity, with a more powerful neighbor – Japan – makes sense.

China’s mixed messages

China’s foreign minister called on Japan’s newly elected PM Shinzo Abe to meet Beijing “halfway” and improve relations which have been damaged by the Senkaku-Diaoyu island dispute.

“We hope the new Japanese administration will meet the Chinese side halfway and make concrete efforts to overcome difficulties in bilateral relations,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters, according to AFP.

This would all be well and good if China itself had not sent a plane over the disputed islands three days before the December election in Japan. It was first such incursion by a Chinese state plane into Japanese airspace in the modern era.  

If China was serious about improved relations, why would China do anything to further aggrevate the already tense relationship? Plainly there are conflicting authorities within China, sending out highly contradictory messages to Japan.

The military is its own political power within China, and operates more or less independently of the Communist Party of China for any matters related to China’s disputed borders.

And so a vision of China emerges of a country that has undergone tremendous growth, while the fiefdoms within -the CPC and the military along with all the other internal poles of power – have maintained their own autonomy from each other. That’s true even with Xi Jinping taking the reins of the military. 

So the CPC and military can’t coordinate a consistent message between each other. In this way China is, in the words of Edward Luttwak, “autistic.” He believes there is “no strategy at all” underpinning China’s rise. Recent events suggest that is the case.

To extend Hugh White’s phrasing about the risk of misunderstandings between nations, one of the greatest ongoing “misunderstandings” may be between China’s communist party leadership and its military leaders.