Taming China’s tantrums

The gunboat diplomacy of the West has been succeeded by the extortion diplomacy of the East. 
Constance Kong | Nov 23 2010 | comment  

China more and more is acting like a tantrum-throwing toddler in a supermarket isle. You feel slightly embarrassed for the parents until you realize that it’s the parents’ fault and they are getting exactly what they deserve.

In the case of China’s little tantrums the parents are the United States and Europe, along with some help from wimpy Uncle Japan. They’ve been placating China for so long that China has decided it is strong enough to get its way now; that the nations that once ruled the world are ready to be ruled.

The two latest episodes of tantrum throwing by Beijing are telling.

The first followed a Chinese fishing boat’s collision with a Japanese naval vessel in the waters around the Senkaku Islands in September. Although the deserted islands have been held by the Japanese since 1895, except for the period from the end of World War II until 1972 when the US administered them, the Chinese claim what they call the Diaoyu Islands as their own. Until recently China had taken a softly, softly approach in discussions over ownership. But the September incident, which resulted in the Japanese Navy arresting the captain of the Chinese fishing trawler, led to strong anti-Japanese sentiments being expressed on the Chinese internet and subsequently in protests on the streets. (Of course, Japanese nationalists responded in kind.)

Things quickly escalated. Beijing demanded that Tokyo release the captain despite evidence that he was drunk at the time of the incident and that his fishing boat had deliberately rammed the Japanese patrol boat in what are still recognized by the international community as Japanese waters. When Tokyo refused to acquiesce, China arrested three Japanese company executives working in China on the vague charge of “business crimes”.

When Japan still held firm, China froze exports of rare earth metals to Japan. Rare earth metals are used in a wide range of modern technological devices such as computers and mobile phones. With China controlling 97 percent of the world’s supply of rare earths, Japan had no alternative supplier waiting in the wings.

Guess what Japan opted to do? It capitulated.

Gunboat diplomacy has been replaced by economic clout -- the clout of a very big, howling baby in the supermarket aisle. Forget international law. Forget law of the sea. Forget that the captain of the fishing boat was drunk and acting recklessly.

Might means right in Beijing’s lexicon.

The second recent scandal follows the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. China reacted by calling in the Norwegian Ambassador to Beijing in the middle of the night to chastise him and his government. The prize is awarded by an independent committee and has nothing to do with the government of Norway; it’s just that it’s awarded in Oslo. But that’s a minor issue to China. It may not be able to bully independent committees in democratic Western nations but Western democratic governments are fair game.

In the latest news China has been warning foreign governments against sending representatives to the award ceremony. The usual suspects have already capitulated – Russia, Iraq, Cuba and Kazakhstan - while Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has joined China in criticizing the prize-giving committee for its decision. These nations represent a nice collection of the corrupt and crazy of geo-politics.

Perhaps there has been some back-room pressure applied by the international community or Beijing on the Nobel Prize awarding community. At least it is acting less nobly than we’d expect of such an organization. It has decided to defer the awarding of Liu’s prize because Liu, his wife and other relatives will not be able to attend the ceremony.

It sounds like the mother of Catch-22 bureaucratic solutions: we won’t be giving the award to this year’s winner who is in prison for standing up for freedom. Is it 1984 all over again?

Perhaps the noble bestowers of the Nobel Peace Prize should reconsider and give the award to Liu in absentia and make a meal of Bejing’s small-mindedness. Even the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries used to let relatives of their dissidents attend the ceremonies and collect the awards despite the awardees themselves being locked up at home (eg, Andrei Sakharov in 1975 and Lech Walesa in 1983). The only other regime to totally stop a winner from collecting the prize was Nazi Germany. It refused to release the pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from a concentration camp to receive the 1935 Peace Prize.

But Beijing is unlikely to see the parallel to Nazi Germany. More likely it will take the cancellation of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony as victory and a sign that the West is at last bowing to Beijing’s wishes.

Kowtowing to China is not the way to win respect from Beijing. China sees itself in ascendancy. Showing the Chinese Communist Party and its military that we are pushovers now is going to make it a lot harder to stand firm when it really matters.

The West would do well to recall that Britain and France’s policy of appeasement did little to avert war with Nazi Germany. Appeasement didn’t work then; it’s unlikely to work now.

The West needs to find some backbone while it can still stand straight.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.

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