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Bully in the China shop

Beijing is picking too many fights with too many countries for the world’s comfort.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2010 01:05 IST
Hindustan Times

If there is one fundamental difference between the rise of China and the rise of India, it is that the former is arousing security concerns across Asia while the latter worries almost no one. China’s near hysterical response to Japan’s detention of a ship crew near a disputed group of islands has only further heightened a sense that the maturity of the world’s superpower-to-be is inversely proportional to its burgeoning power. India has already experienced this combination of ultra-nationalism and unpredictability over the past year. But there is no shortage of countries who have been left bruised and worried by Beijing’s bullying ways in the past few years. They range from the innocuous like Australia and the Philippines, to potential rivals like the United States and Vietnam.

What is genuinely perplexing about China’s new assertiveness is that it does not seem to be a product of a calibrated policy. Rather it seems to be the consequence of a fragmentation of the ruling party leadership’s famed coherence. China’s foreign ministry seems to have been sidelined by the People’s Liberation Army. Even provincial governments are straying down paths unknown to Beijing. It says something that optimists argue this breakdown is merely a fallout of a coming succession struggle within the party. The present dispensation has only about two years left in power and each faction is pandering to each and every interest group. The pessimists worry that this incoherence is structural: a nation of a billion people with the world’s second largest economy has outgrown a 300-strong leadership whose members are more likely to be engineers than politicians.

It is only to be expected that China’s political structure should transform as the country develops. The question is what path of development the country will take. The evidence so far is troubling. Beijing’s bursts of nationalistic fervour over useless bits of territory, paranoia about its minorities and preference for muscle-flexing at multilateral fora are not reassuring. India has long been a supporter of a multipolar world and is realistic that China has become one of those poles. India and others may need to reassess that if China continues to be unclear if it wishes to hold up the international system — or bring it down.

First Published: Sep 25, 2010 00:57 IST