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What is China Thinking?

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 23, 2010

Activists on a fishing boat depart for the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyu islands from an island in Hong Kong

Following the recent months’ turmoil over the South China Sea and now China’s tensions with Japan, I have many questions; most importantly, what is China thinking? From the late 1990s until the mid-2000s, as I chronicled in my book Charm Offensive, Beijing did an excellent job of reassuring nations in East Asia, and particularly Southeast Asia, that it could be a good neighbor, a positive player in regional institutions, and an actor capable of conciliatory and reasonable behavior. In just the past few months, Beijing has damaged that perception and ruined much of the goodwill it took a decade to amass. Vietnam is fast-tracking its cooperation with the United States, other Southeast Asian nations are pushing Washington to re-engage with the region, and even Cambodia, whose leadership generally detests Western powers, is cozying up with Washington.

So the question is, why? Surely, Chinese leaders recognized that their increasingly aggressive actions on the South China Sea and other issues would destroy some goodwill. Some possible answers:

  1. The long game. I think U.S. officials, pundits, and academics sometimes give China too much credit for far-sighted policymaking; Tom Friedman has written so many columns praising China’s energy strategy he should go work for Xinhua. But it may well be that Beijing is gambling that, though its actions are provoking responses from the United States, Japan, and India in the short term, by setting down markers for other powers, it will over time shift discourse so that its markers, its arguments about the South China Sea and other issues, dominate the discussion.
  2. Domestic sentiment. If Americans too often over-praise Chinese strategic thinking, they too often under-appreciate the power of Chinese domestic sentiment. Increasing potential exploration of the South China Sea and other regions for oil and gas does not go unnoticed by Chinese academics, the PLA, and nationalist writers; the government in Beijing has to respond, especially since Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao don’t enjoy the credibility with the PLA of some previous leaders.
  3. Underestimating smaller regional powers. Though Beijing’s policy-makers have a better understanding of the region than, say, twenty years ago, they still tend to underestimate the desire and ability of smaller nations in Southeast Asia to push back against Chinese policymaking. That oversight can be particularly pronounced regarding Vietnam, where there is powerful and ingrained anti-China sentiment among leaders and average people; conversely, few Chinese leaders or average people think regularly about Vietnam at all.

(Photo: Siu Chiu/courtesy Reuters)

Post a Comment 10 Comments

  • Posted by Sino-Gist

    I have tried to trackback to this post from a post on my own blog (, but i’m not sure its worked…

  • Posted by DiegoM

    You are wrong with your assessment of Asia and China.
    The reason why the ASEAN members are cozying with Washington is not because of China but to gain more advantage over the other.Veitnamn for its part, is an opportunist.It needs Washington for its desire to own nuclear power

    Unknown to you, the ASEANs are competing with each other.Do they cooperate in times of needs? Take this. Philippines almost cancel its import of rice from Veitnam because they didn’t agree with the pricing. The former thought it was charge above the price level but the former said it’s below the market value.

    Asians think differently than the West.Regardless, there’s this natural brotherhood feeling amongst them even if they compete with each other. The reason why it’s building cooperation with U.S is because there’s already this ASEAN+3.

    You ate blowing your horn towards wrong direction. Nice try.
    Better have an accurate colunm next time regardlessof whether you are bias or not ( your are more of the former

  • Posted by hughes

    Your post is well wtritten as it pertains to the current attitudes of smaller nations around China. What it fails to do, is anticipate what the attitudes of these small nations will be towards China by 2020. I am not an economist, but I am sure of one thing. By 2020, a great deal of these smaller economies will be heavily dependant upon China than they will at America. Like I said, I am not an economist. But I can predict that by 2020, almost 35% to 45% of Japan’s economy will be dependant upon China. This is the reason why Japan will give up the islands of recent dispute to China regardless of the what USA does in the south China sea. Infact the islands in question actually belong to China. It is a historical fact that Japan, on their way to take over Taiwan from China in the late 1800s, they also took over the islands that are in dispute from China. One thing that I can not figure out, is why the media in my own country always talks about the islands in dispute, while omitting the fact that Japan took them over from China in the late 1800s. Unlike many western thinkers who think it is beneficial to western interests in Japan for Japan to continue holding on to the islands that clearly belong to China, I am of the opinion that in the near future, Japan will give up those islands back to China in a way that will undermine western interests. This is something the western elites have not thought about. This is what I mean, China has already passed the USA in becoming the largest trading partner of Japan. So this makes me pose this question, let us say that by 2020 that 35% to 45% of Japan’s economy is dependant upon China, what will happen to Japan’s economy and society if China decided to stop all trade with Japan, because of Japan’s refusal to hand over islands that historically belong to China. In this instance, Japan as a country and society will callapse regardless of what western societies try to do to help Japan. It is under this teaching moment that smaller nations around China will decide that an association with America is not in their economic interest. This is what you and other American elites have missed. This is why the article in the New York Times about smaller nations in Asia becoming closer to America because of China is so stupid beyond believe. The reason why it is so stupid is becauese it does not say where Asia is going to be in the next ten years. Unlike many American thinkers, I think that that western interests will be better served by encouraging the Japanise to give up the islands that historically belong to China. Japan is eventually going to give up those islands back to China, so let us make sure Japan gives up those islands in a way that makes China feel good about us.

  • Posted by Kyle M.

    “In this instance, Japan as a country and society will callapse regardless of what western societies try to do to help Japan.”

    Wishful thinking is not analysis.

    And no, you’re not an economist.

  • Posted by Henlicek

    @Hughes: You are just another Chinese with fake Western name to speak in favor of China.

  • Posted by Indochina

    I believe other smaller countries in Southeast Asia are having eyes on how China deals with Japan in this situation. More aggressive China shows to the world, the closer union among these countries against China.

    China could not just stop trading with Japan and the world. That is impossible. Because, as a great and big country in the world, China can not do whatever It likes to “punish” other countries. It will put the world in the chaos and tight union against China. Who would it be hurt most? Yes, that is China. The reason why is so obvious. More than 50% of China’s incoming is from export. More than 50% of its population is poorer compared to the western countries, which is almost the same as all western countries’ populations.

    I don’t believe that China will have better feeling about the world or the western countries or the world will have less unsecured feeling about China, if Japan simply gives the island back to China.

    It is very ironic that with the fast growth of its economy and its important role in the world, China has been creating scary impression upon the rest of the world. The world keeps guessing about its moves and its feelings. The world does not have any clues on how China reasons and behaves accordingly.

    China is just a big angry child.

  • Posted by hughes

    Why is that you did not tell your readers that in the late 1800s, through the use force, Japan took over Taiwan and the Daioyu islands from China. Let me ask you this simple question, what if in the late 1800s Russia had used force and taken over the cape cod islands from the USA.Will you today write a piece about what “America is thinking” in demanding back the cape code islands from Russia. The Daioyu islands belong to China and not Japan.This is a historical fact. Before the late 1800s, both Japanise and Chinise maps showed that the Daioyu islands belonged to China. Therefore, the most relevant question of your article should be this: “what are the Japanise thinking ” in not giving up the Daioyu islands back to China.

  • Posted by D

    I see the nationalist Chinese bloggers have even made it onto the CFR…

  • Posted by mareo2

    hughes, americans taked their land from native americans, with your logic the US have to give it back to them now?

  • Posted by T

    @mareoz: exactly. The americans should give back the land. But would they? Of course not. Why would they give up everything now? Techinically, Australia should be given back to the Aborigines. But of course that isn’t happening either. Life isn’t always fair. This is just the plain selfishness that we humans can;t help but have.

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