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Chinese foreign policy in a muddle

The increasingly bitter dispute between China and Japan over a small group of islands in the Pacific is heightening concerns in capitals across the globe over who controls China's foreign policy.

world Updated: Sep 25, 2010 02:12 IST

The increasingly bitter dispute between China and Japan over a small group of islands in the Pacific is heightening concerns in capitals across the globe over who controls China's foreign policy.

A new generation of officials in the military, key government ministries and state-owned companies has begun to define how China deals with the rest of the world. Emboldened by China's economic expansion, these officials are taking advantage of a weakened leadership at the top of the Communist Party to assert their interests in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.

It used to be that Chinese officials complained about the Byzantine decision-making process in the US. Today, from Washington to Tokyo, the talk is about how difficult it is to contend with the explosion of special interests shaping China's worldview.

"Now we have to deal across agencies and departments and ministries," said a US official requesting anonymity. "The relationship is extraordinarily complex."

A senior Japanese diplomat said, "We, too, are often confused about China's intentions and who is calling the shots."

Japanese officials said the People's Liberation Army is responsible for the friction over the disputed island chain, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. In previous crises, China's Foreign Ministry has acted as a calming influence, but this time, Japanese diplomats said, the military led the charge.

China responded by demanding the captain's release, suspending talks, canceling the visits of Japanese schoolchildren and on Thursday arresting four Japanese who allegedly were taking photographs near a Chinese military installation.

Washington signaled to Beijing on Thursday that it would back Japan in the territorial dispute. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: "Obviously we're very, very strongly in support of . . . our ally in that region, Japan."

The island dispute is the latest instance of players other than the party's central leadership driving China's engagement with the outside world.

Throughout this year, officials from the Ministry of Commerce, who represent China's exporters, have lobbied vociferously against revaluing China's currency, the yuan, despite calls to the contrary from the People's Bank of China and the Ministry of Finance.

In Iran, China's state-owned oil companies are pushing to do more business, even though Beijing backed enhanced UN sanctions against Tehran because of its alleged nuclear weapons program.

The China National Offshore Oil Co. is in talks to ramp up its investment in the massive Azadegan oil field just as Japanese companies are backing out, senior diplomatic sources said.

The move by CNOOC would have the effect of "gutting" the new sanctions, one diplomat said. The US officials have stressed to China that they do not want to see China's oil companies "filling in" as other oil companies leave, a senior US official said.

China's main nuclear power corporation wants to build a one-gigawatt nuclear power plant in Pakistan even though it appears to be a violation of international guidelines forbidding nuclear exports to countries that have not signed onto the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or do not have international safeguards on reactors. Pakistan has not signed the treaty.

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