Daniel W. Drezner

China has a longer learning curve than I had anticipated

China has a longer learning curve than I had anticipated

There’s been a lot of oh-my-God-China-is-eating-America’s-lunch-have-you-seen-how-pretty-their-infrastructure-is?-kind of blather among the commentariat. And, to be sure, China has had a good Great Recession. But one of the points I’ve been making on this blog repeatedly is that, for all of China’s supposed deftness, "China’s continued rise seems to be occurring in spite of strategic miscalculations, not because of them."

Now, I had also assumed that China’s leadership would quickly move down the learning curve and practice a more subtle form of statecraft. After reading Keith Bradsher in the New York Times today, however, I guess I was wrong:

Sharply raising the stakes in a dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese government has blocked exports to Japan of a crucial category of minerals used in products like hybrid cars, win turbines and guided missiles.

Chinese customs officials are halting shipments to Japan of so-called rare earth elements, preventing them from being loaded aboard ships this week at Chinese ports, three industry officials said Thursday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao personally called for Japan’s release of the captain, who was detained after his vessel collided with two Japanese Coast Guard ships about 40 minutes apart as he tried to fish in waters controlled by Japan but long claimed by China. Mr. Wen threatened unspecified further actions if Japan did not comply.

Is this effort at economic statecraft going to accomplish Beijing’s objectives? In a word, no. True, according to Bradsher, "China mines 93 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals, and more than 99 percent of the world’s supply of some of the most prized rare earths." 

It’s also true, however, that Japan has been stockpiling supplies of rare earths. Furthermore, this kind of action is just going to lead to massive subsidies to produce rare earths elsewherein the world (including the United States) and/or develop rare earth substitutes. Oh, and one other thing — given the spate of flare-ups between Japan and China as of late, the last thing Tokyo will want to do is back down in the face of Chinese economic coercion. 

Don’t get me wrong — if China persists in this ban, there will be come economic costs to the rest of the world. Those costs just won’t translate into any political concessions. [UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has an excellent follow-up story suggesting that China is not imposing a ban.] 

It is hardly surprising that (reported) actions like these are leading the entire Pacific Rim right to Washington’s door

[R]ising frictions between China and its neighbors in recent weeks over security issues have handed the United States an opportunity to reassert itself — one the Obama administration has been keen to take advantage of.

Washington is leaping into the middle of heated territorial disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations despite stern Chinese warnings that it mind its own business. The United States is carrying out naval exercises with South Korea in order to help Seoul rebuff threats from North Korea even though China is denouncing those exercises, saying that they intrude on areas where the Chinese military operates.

Meanwhile, China’s increasingly tense standoff with Japan over a Chinese fishing trawler captured by Japanese ships in disputed waters is pushing Japan back under the American security umbrella….

“The U.S. has been smart,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, a professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy who studies security issues in Asia. “It has done well by coming to the assistance of countries in the region.”

“All across the board, China is seeing the atmospherics change tremendously,” he added. “The idea of the China threat, thanks to its own efforts, is being revived.”

Asserting Chinese sovereignty over borderlands in contention — everywhere from Tibet to Taiwan to the South China Sea — has long been the top priority for Chinese nationalists, an obsession that overrides all other concerns. But this complicates China’s attempts to present the country’s rise as a boon for the whole region and creates wedges between China and its neighbors. 

This latest rare earth ban is just going to accelerate this trend. The ironic thing about this is that it’s not like U.S. grand strategy has been especially brilliant. The U.S., however, has two big advantages at the moment. First, it’s further away from these countries than China. Second, Washington’s actions and rhetoric have been far more innocuous than Beijing’s.

In yet another New York Times story, David Sanger provides a small clue as to whether Beijing either knows or cares about the blowback from its recent actions:

Early this month Mr. Obama quietly sent to Beijing Thomas E. Donilon, his deputy national security adviser and by many accounts the White House official with the greatest influence on the day-to-day workings of national security policy, and Lawrence H. Summers, who announced Tuesday that he would leave by the end of the year as the director of the National Economic Council….

[O]fficials familiar with the meetings said they were intended to try to get the two countries focused on some common long-term goals. The Chinese sounded more cooperative themes than in the spring, when two other administration officials were told, as one senior official put it, that “it was the Obama administration that caused this mess, and it’s the Obama administration that has to clean it up.”

Well, that is learning, but it’s of a very modest kind. 

Now, it is possible that Beijing has simply decided that its internal growth is so big that it can afford the friction that comes with a rising power. My assessment, however, is that they’re vastly overestimating their current power vis-a-vis the United States, and they’re significantly undererstimating the effect of pushing the rest of the Pacific Rim into closer ties with the United States (and India).  

More significantly, and to repeat a theme, China is overestimating its ability to translate the economic interdependence of the Asia/Pacific economy into political leverage. With these misperceptions, however, China is risking some serious conflicts down the road.

Am I missing anything? I’m serious — this problem ain’t going away anytime soon.