China’s passive wait-and-see strategy


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. 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.

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.

© Japan Today

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This has been Chinese strategy through many dynasties. Nothing new.

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This is a clearly biased article. China is shown as the victim.


Sending out ship after ship to start disputes looks not passive, but aggressive to me.

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Badass China

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Well not bad Huang. However it seems a tad unlikely that it is still possible to speak about China with a "never changing" character or policy. Could it be that the resent economic and military/militaristic developments has changed peoples perceptions about the their capability, their god given rights and role in the region/globally? Moreover internal difficulties are usually connected to external ones. Maybe its reasonable that internal issues affect the foreign policies in the same way as external happenings affect internal issues. However a fact is that China has only escalated rhetorics, ships and planes in the disputed areas as part of their alleged wait-and-see strategy. No actual invasion of the islands yet. From a hardcore view I guess it is still as it has been for a long time.

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