The Paradox of Blinking

Published on Project Syndicate, by Kishore Mahbubani, (also on wikipedia), Oct. 14, 2010.

SINGAPORE – The world has recently witnessed two major diplomatic blinks. Japan, facing mounting pressure from China, unconditionally released a Chinese trawler captain whose ship had rammed a Japanese naval patrol boat. And US President Barack Obama did nothing when Israel refused to extend its freeze on new building construction in the West Bank, causing Israeli West Bank settlers to rejoice.

In the short run, it is clear who lost. In the long run, however, the outcome of backing down may not be so clear. China, in particular, should weigh carefully the long-term political price of celebrating its supposed victory over Japan. 

According to Newton’s third law of motion, “for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” Geopolitics has a similar law: whenever the world sees a new emerging power, the world’s greatest existing power tries, directly or indirectly, to block its rise. Today, the world’s greatest power is the US, and the greatest emerging power is China. So far, surprisingly, the US has not forged a strategy to thwart China’s rise.

The reasons for this geopolitical aberration are complex. But a key factor is that, until recently, China’s leaders have abided by the wise counsel of Deng Xiaoping: taoguang yanghui (conceal [our] capabilities and avoid the limelight), and shanyu shouzhuo (be good at keeping a low profile). China’s decision to browbeat the Japanese into submission over the fishing trawler, suggests that China may be throwing Deng’s geopolitical caution out the window.

More recklessly, after securing the release of the trawler, China demanded an apology from Japan. A major rule in international relations is never to make a demand that cannot be met. Having already been humiliated by China, such an apology would be politically suicidal for the Japanese government.

In fact, China should hope that no such apology is forthcoming. In the past few decades, Japan has become a sleeping tiger. Having outperformed the rest of Asia for more than a century, the Japanese have decided to slow down. Japan has lost its drive to remain one of the world’s greatest powers, and it may never regain it.

But, given Japan’s history, one would be foolish to underestimate the country. While the world frets about North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons, it is useful to remind ourselves that Japan, should it choose, could become a nuclear power in a matter of weeks. It has all the ingredients, though painful memories of World War II and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have so far kept its leaders well away from developing a nuclear stockpile.

Moreover, if Japan needs allies to balance the rise of China, it could easily turn not only to the US, but also to Russia and India. In short, the geopolitical cards could turn out in Japan’s favor if China overplays its hand … (full text).

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