The not so peaceful rise of China

Tactically, China's recent moves vis-a-vis Japan are brilliant. Strategically, Beijing has lost more.

For roughly a decade, the Chinese government has spared no effort in trying to convince the rest of the world that China's rise will be peaceful. Realists steeped in the history of great power competition have always been sceptical about Beijing's pledges of pursuing what it calls "peaceful development". Yet, liberal-minded analysts are willing to give China the benefit of the doubt. They believe that, given the right incentives, such as the economic benefits of globalisation, China will behave responsibly and become a stakeholder in the existing international order.

This debate remained inconclusive until about three years ago. Partisans on both sides could marshal sufficient evidence to buttress their arguments. However, as Chinese foreign policy began to grow more assertive, particularly on territorial disputes, realists who insisted that China would behave like a traditional great power gained greater credibility.

With the most recent escalation of tensions between China and Japan over the ownership of a group of small uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, there is little doubt that advocates of China's peaceful rise are losing the debate. What makes the latest round of escalations special is the way Beijing chose to challenge Japan's sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands, as Japan calls them (they are called the Diaoyu in China). To be sure, this particular dispute began in 1972, when the United States handed over administrative authority (but not legal ownership) to Japan. For four decades, China and Japan had adhered to a tacit agreement over the status of the islands: Japan would retain administrative control and claim sovereignty, and China would contest the sovereignty but not challenge Japan's administrative control.

This understanding broke down in late 2012 when Tokyo was forced to "nationalise" the islands in order to prevent an extremist right-wing leader from purchasing some of the islands from their private owners, a development the Japanese government thought would lead to a confrontation with Beijing. Little did Tokyo realise that Beijing would regard its move, however well-intentioned, as a step tantamount to formally establishing sovereignty claims over the islands.

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