Newly risen China flexing its muscles: experts

by Dan Martin, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 22 2010 04:35 PM | Updated as of Sep 23 2010 12:36 AM

BEIJING, China - Emboldened by its rapid emergence as a global power, China is asserting ancient territorial claims and probing the limits of the US-led security order that has held sway in Asia for decades, analysts say.

There has been no let-up in a two-week-old Chinese barrage hurled against Japan demanding the immediate release of a trawler captain who was detained by the Japanese coast guard, following a collision in disputed waters.

"(President Hu Jintao's) government has made a fundamental shift in China's foreign policy orientation to, as it sees it, at long last, standing up for China," said Edward Friedman, a China scholar at the University of Wisconsin.

China's communist leaders have for decades invoked the memory of humiliating encroachments by foreign countries to rally domestic support, though Beijing was too weak to do much about its past territorial claims.

But something changed in 2008, Friedman said, when Beijing's successful staging of the Olympics enhanced its prestige, and the world financial crisis humbled the United States and other rich economies.

Backed by its growing military might, which includes a blue-water navy able to push further out into the Pacific, and spurred by increasing nationalist sentiment, China has since reacted furiously to perceived sovereignty slights.

"Whether the issue is Seoul's military ties to Washington or Japan's claims to the East China Sea .... or Vietnam's claims to the South China Sea and the Spratly Islands, China wasn't going to sit idly by any more against so-called injustices of the past," said Friedman.

Early this year, China cut off military ties with the United States in anger over US arms sales to Taiwan and a meeting between President Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

Adding to China's prickliness is its perception that the United States seeks to "contain" it, fuelled by gestures that China sees as threatening, said Wenran Jiang, an expert on Chinese foreign relations.

These include US naval activities in areas of the South China Sea which China claims, recent US-South Korea wargames, and Washington's reaffirmation of its post-World War II security alliance with Japan, he said.

"You can see in the Chinese thinking a sort of siege mentality. They feel things are tightening around them," said Jiang, who is based at the University of Alberta in Canada.

The boat collision occurred near uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, which are claimed by both sides and by Taiwan. They are administered by Japan.

Tokyo bears some of the blame for the tension by continuing to hold the boat captain on the grounds that he violated its domestic laws, Jiang said.

"The area is in dispute but China does not challenge Japan's control there much. So to detain someone is quite an escalation," he said.

Japanese actions, in particular, arouse strong anger in China, where memories of Japan's brutal occupation in the 1930s and 40s linger.

China's anger in the boat row also could be a test of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who defeated a more Beijing-friendly challenger in a party leadership race, said Takayoshi Shibata, a politics professor at Tokyo Keizai University.

"This issue isn't only about China-Japan but reflects China's relations with the United States," he said. "China has a lot of issues with the United States, and Japan is considered a minion of Washington's."

But at the same time, Beijing appears to be calibrating its response, mindful of Japan's status as its single-biggest foreign investor.

China kept anti-Japan demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai firmly under control over the weekend. In past years, demonstrators were allowed to stage sometimes violent protests against Japan.

Beijing is "leery of legitimising popular demonstrations against foreign entities which in the past have morphed into movements directed at the (communist) regime itself", Friedman said.

China must also not overplay its hand, for fear of seeing Asian countries close ranks behind a protective US embrace, experts say.

"Beijing's civilian leaders will be reluctant to have this feed into a larger image of a more assertive China" that provokes a coordinated backlash, said David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University.