Is China overplaying its hand?

Beijing is denying that it has pushed its fishing boat spat with Japan to the limits. It has not, Beijing says, attempted to cripple the pinnacle of global commerce, Japan’s auto industry, because a fisherman is sitting in a Japanese jail after ramming two Japanese patrol boats. That’s the wise course. Because if China truly ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing is denying that it has pushed its fishing boat spat with Japan to the limits. It has not, Beijing says, attempted to cripple the pinnacle of global commerce, Japan's auto industry, because a fisherman is sitting in a Japanese jail after ramming two Japanese patrol boats.

That's the wise course. Because if China truly has cut off rare-earth metal supplies in an effort to show who is boss of Asia, it will create serious ripples around the world.

Beijing is denying that it has pushed its fishing boat spat with Japan to the limits. It has not, Beijing says, attempted to cripple the pinnacle of global commerce, Japan’s auto industry, because a fisherman is sitting in a Japanese jail after ramming two Japanese patrol boats.

That’s the wise course. Because if China truly has cut off rare-earth metal supplies in an effort to show who is boss of Asia, it will create serious ripples around the world.

Paul Kennedy is the main teacher in this sphere. In his seminal The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, Kennedy argues that, when a country gets too big for its boots, smaller nations gang up, Lilliputian-style, and give it a comeuppance. As of now, the prevailing thinking that the United States is in the boots, and China is the Lilliputian.

But one could easily see the opposite occurring should China play its hand wrong. If the world gets the idea that a strong China is going to mean an economically crippling regime over piddling perceived slights, the number of those supporting Beijing’s economic rise (such as its neighbors and companies like Nissan) may grow smaller.

<p> Steve LeVine is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of The Oil and the Glory. </p>

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