Two China experts have warned of the dangers of a regional armed conflict stemming from China’s territorial claims while its new leadership is preoccupied with domestic issues.
Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, writing for Project Syndicate, notes: “Japan is fuelling nationalist sentiment in China and South Korea, and making even more dangerous the already volatile territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.”
Focusing on Tokyo’s role in the deteriorating strategic environment, he says: “Japan is again alienating its neighbours and driving its friends to despair over the issue of accepting responsibility for its wartime aggression and atrocities.”
Linda Jakobson, the Lowy Institute’s East Asia program director, has written a 9000-word paper, published today, on “China’s foreign policy dilemma”, which spells out the dangers.
“Regional stability is at risk of China’s new leadership merely reacts as events unfold.”
Ms Jakobson says although the international community assumes China is inexorably on the rise, people in China “are deeply worried about the future of their country”.
“They question China’s ability to continue to rise because of daunting domestic problems, many of which can only be tackled by bold reform,” she writes.
This gulf between outside perceptions and domestic preoccupations “complicates attempts to understand China’s foreign policy”. She says the low importance of foreign policy to China’s leaders is reflected in the status of State Councillor Dai Bingguo and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi as “mere members” of the 204-person central committee.
The immediate foreign policy test for new top leader Xi Jinping is to ease tensions with Japan over the disputed Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands in the East China Sea.
“The situation is explosive,” she says. In the event of a collision, accidental or intentional, between Japanese and Chinese vessels or aircraft, “an armed conflict could erupt between the two countries”.
But while Mr Xi will wish to manage tensions, Ms Jakobson says, “he will have to tread extremely carefully to avoid creating a perception amongst Chinese that he is weak in defending China’s national interests”.
“Beijing’s skilful diplomacy in Southeast Asia” has been a success, but its use of its power “to coerce Vietnam and The Philippines . . . to accept China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea” means that reservoir of goodwill “has all but evaporated”.
If Mr Xi fails to fend off nationalist demands to display determination over such sovereignty issues, “a limited armed conflict with either The Philippines or Vietnam cannot be ruled out”.