November 8, 2013
Seas of Tension
By Yukon Huang
Director for China, World Bank (1997-2004)

Many interpret China’s regional disputes as signs of a rising world power flexing its muscles. Yukon Huang, the World Bank’s former country director for China, argues that understanding each country’s point of view is key to de-escalating tensions in the region.

You could easily conclude from newspaper headlines that China is determined to flex its muscles in the Asia-Pacific region, even to the extent of challenging the United States’ traditional hegemony. Alarming reports about China’s increasingly belligerent stance in its long-simmering sovereignty dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which could potentially draw the United States into a regional conflict, are but a recent example of what is broadly perceived to be a Chinese push for superpower status.

Many see China’s growing economic might and saber-rattling as a real threat to both East Asian and global stability.

Many see China’s growing economic might and saber-rattling as a real threat to both East Asian and global stability. If you step back and take a longer look, however, you may see things differently. Far from being aggressive, China is by inclination passive. Deng Xiaoping, the man whose post-Mao reforms shaped the China we know today, put it succinctly decades ago when he assured the United Nations that his country had no far-reaching global ambitions – that it needed to focus on its domestic problems, and preferred to put off dealing with external issues until the future.

This “biding our time” strategy still pervades Chinese foreign policy. But that does not mean China is going to allow other countries to push it around or contain it. China would prefer not to force issues, but if it feels pressured or directly challenged, it will react.

The confrontation over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands is a good example. The ownership of the islands had been an ongoing diplomatic dispute between China and Japan, and China likely would have been content to keep it that way. In September 2010, however, a Japanese patrol intercepted what it claimed was a Chinese trawler’s intrusion into its territorial waters and not only arrested its captain – which is pro forma in such situations – but also held him for more than two weeks. To the Chinese, that was beyond normal protocols and thus a provocation they could not let pass. Then, in 2012, Tokyo purchased three of the islands from their private Japanese owner – in effect nationalizing them.

The situation has subsequently gone from bad to worse. Both sides have fueled the conflict through maritime posturing, and China recently sent in a drone. Still, from China’s perspective, it had no choice but to respond to Japan’s provocation.

Despite its remarkable economic transformation from poor nation to international player, China still has plenty of pressing domestic issues to deal with. It would prefer to do what it’s always done and delay dealing with sensitive external issues, hoping they’ll somehow resolve themselves in a peaceful, evolutionary way. This is very much, for example, the stance it has adopted towards its conflict with Taiwan. Things, China believes, will sort themselves out in the end.

It’s hard to negotiate if you don’t have a starting point.

This is not to say that China’s passive, wait-and-see strategy is necessarily a smart one. If it aspires to a greater role in the region – as well it might – it needs to step up and engage with its neighbors in ways that will clearly benefit all stakeholders. Some of those neighbors have pressing agendas in terms of resource development and trade agreements, and would like to know where China stands. It’s hard to negotiate if you don’t have a starting point. In such situations, China could play a positive leadership role without being viewed as an aggressor.

At the same time, it would certainly help if stakeholder nations, including the United States, better understood the way China perceives things ¬– that it sees the Obama administration’s “Asia pivot,” for instance, as another attempt by the United States to maintain its regional dominance and contain Chinese ambitions. Stakeholder nations should similarly recognize that China views the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a potential threat – another form of containment – and that it sees the way some of its neighbors cozy up to Washington in the hope that the United States will counterbalance growing Chinese power.

There is a lot of potential for cooperative economic development in the region, but it won’t happen if the nations involved don’t do a better job of understanding how their perspectives differ. Once they learn to see things from different points of view, they will really be able to talk.

Photo credit: Emily Wang/Associated Press

Yukon HuangYukon Huang served as the World Bank’s country director for China (1997–2004) and for Russia and the former Soviet Union Republics of Central Asia (1992–1997).