It's Pilates diplomacy: work on your core. China's diplomats keep talking about China's core interests and it's a growing list. In 2011, China included its political system and social stability as core interests. This year, it has added a vast chunk of the South China Sea to its core.
China's certainly appearing more assertive in defining and defending that growing core.
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Has it achieved its goals? From what I've seen, the answer is an emphatic "no." A decade of cultivating the image a of a friendly neighbor intent on a peaceful rise appears to have been squandered. Vietnam, the Philippines, Mongolia, India, Myanmar are have all had run-ins with China over territorial and business disputes. There's a growing sense that China is starting to act like a bully and that's given the U.S. an opening. So, instead of strengthening China's role, China's foreign policy has ended up creating a new opportunity for the U.S. in the region. Oops.
The Japan dispute is more confusing to me. What's at stake? A handful of rocky islands where there might be some natural gas and oil underneath. Estimates vary from more than the Gulf of Mexico to more than any country expect Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. That's a lot, but the estimates are far from certain because with the dispute going on, no one has been able to really go and look. Second, it's one thing to have a hydrocarbon underground, it's another to see if it's economically viable to get it out. The shale gas revolution in the U.S. has depressed global gas prices. Couldn't Japan and China work out developing the reserves together? Plenty of oil fields are split between different companies as a way to spread the big risks and huge costs of developing complex projects.
So why the chest beating? Is it playing to a domestic audience? Maybe. And Japan-bashing certainly has widespread appeal (just take a look at the anti-Japan riots last year). But there is a difference between taking to the street and going to war. Would the typical Chinese mother really want to send her son to die for the sovereignty of a rock?
In China, foreign affairs are portrayed as very personal. A set phrase for diplomats is that something "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." To an outsider, that rings odd. One can't imagine Secretary Clinton angrily telling Putin "You've hurt the feelings of the American people." Talk about "feelings" seems better suited for couples counseling than global politics. One Chinese scholar analyzed the use of the phrase and suggests it shows improved ties to the world -- after all you, only a friend can really hurt your feelings.The flip side, though, is if you're feelings are you hurt you may act irrationally.
Could it be that the personal approach is more than just sloganeering? Could it be that when Chinese officials look at the world, it's not about realpolitik, but about feelings?