Why Is China “Angry Yet Not Mighty,
Big Yet Not Strong” in South China Sea?
By BI Dianlong
Translated By Peixin Lin
20 June 2011
Edited by Mark DeLucas
Singapore - Zaobao - Original Article (Chinese)
In recent years, there have been some self-aggrandizing folks within China who think that China is already very strong, or that Western organizations with ulterior motives have rendered China to be as such, and that China is a threat to the world. However, what is more supported by reality is that China is not threatening; its own vital interests are being continuously eroded and threatened. This article uses the South China Sea issue as an example. It analyzes the questions: Which aspect is China’s, “angry yet not mighty” or “big but not strong”? Is it real or apparent? What is the main cause of these problems? How is China to break through this illusion or bottleneck?
China’s “angry yet not mighty” position is mainly manifested in diplomacy that involves its own interests and is a diplomatic response to international affairs. For instance, in response to the Libyan and Israeli issues, China lacked persistence in the UN, and after making one announcement abstained from voting, weakening the Western position of invading or interfering with other countries. Of course, for China’s own interests, being ambiguous or compromising at certain points is inevitable and also permitted within the unspoken rules of international diplomacy. But if this is done again, the prestige of a big nation will be diminished. Not giving one’s best, yet wanting to project the image of international communist fighters who are impartial and fighting for the salvation of the people — there is no need. To the common people in China, foreign diplomacy and international affairs seem removed from their lives; they have yet to experience related pain close to their own skins.
If the United States and South Korea hold military exercises in nearby waters, our statements and protests will escalate, yet we would be unable to prevent the situation from worsening. If the United States is overly strong, then it is understandable that tolerance is the highest principle. Our provocative behavior toward countries such as Vietnam presents to the outside world an image of being one from whom other nations are defending themselves. Vietnamese oil exploration in Chinese waters, cables tangling Chinese fishing boats, causing danger to fishermen… these answers are weak, just air and no strength: If China truly claims these waters, there should be immediate action against such actions and no need to explain that Chinese fishermen are being threatened and bullied by a smaller and weaker country in Chinese waters before cutting off Vietnamese rights to run exploratory cables in the territories. Perhaps a change of perspective: If Chinese fishnets and fishing boats are facing the danger of Vietnamese cables used for oil exploration, could we, with our eyes wide open, watch them wreak havoc here? Where are our territorial claims we say we adhere to? Where is our duty and ability to protect our own citizens?
For more similar examples, in the case of protecting sovereignty, it is always others who first claim sovereignty, others who first provoke, and then we present ourselves as keeping the peace. As a result, some departments within China are considered weak and are seen as having not prepared strong stances on the issue of territorial claims at sea. In the long run, with accumulated weakness and a cumbersome leadership, we are allowing these countries to join forces, missing out on the good opportunity to one by one kill off the first provocateur, setting an example for the rest.
For a large country with many air and navy forces, China’s proclamations and responses neither impact nor deter. Only anger, no authority, not to say power.
As for China being “big but not powerful,” combined with the above analysis, it is even easier to understand. Our troops and equipment are many times stronger than many of our surrounding countries. However, in 30 years, we have not fought a war that has impressed any country that has provoked us nor taken any appropriate military action. Nonetheless, China keeps updating and displaying new weapons, emptily dropping the reputation for threatening other countries. If the numerous troops are merely used for maintaining internal peace and stability and not in the daily protection of our sovereignty, then the army is sufficient, even if we reduce the numbers by a million. However, if we already have troops and equipment of this scale, yet cannot practically stop the situation in the South China Sea from deteriorating, or ideologically are not planning to solve these problems within the next 10 years, then these troops have no great use. The base line of these troops should be to at least prevent the situation of staking territorial claims from deteriorating, and not be used merely as deterrence. Let’s look at it from another angle: If we do not appropriately respond to the worsening situation in the South China Sea and just speak of outsiders not daring to step one bit into Chinese land, then even if our navy and air forces are cut by half, there still may not be any outsider who would dare infiltrate us. Thus, no matter what the world thinks, if China does not take any step in the South China Sea, it would be hard for others to acknowledge China’s military prowess.
Often, the reason for China being “angry yet not mighty” or “big yet not powerful” is that the impression China gives the international community is that harmony and peace trump all. Even if China has to repress and stand pain, China will not start a war lightly. Such an overt quest for peace has led some countries who provoke China without feeling any pressure of pending violence or danger of strong counterattack. If enough warning is given for them to stay out of war, that could last till the next generation. From this point of view, China has already lost a good opportunity to sacrifice a little in order to prevent the South China Sea situation from worsening. If China wants to thoroughly solve the problem, I am afraid there has to be a higher price, a greater and stronger presence, to choose a point of attack to break the alliance that has already formed but is not yet set in stone.
At a time when the United States has no time to care about East Asia, China has not established its prestige as a regional power should have. It has also isolated itself from Western military containment as led by the United States. No matter how many relationships China establishes, the number of strong beneficial ties with countries with which China shares an ideology is lessening, not increasing. Even if U.S. hegemony is weakening, they have already very skillfully painted China as a child or as ideologically evil. Under such a portrayal, the more powerful China gets, the more they are uneasy. For example, when a child has a wooden blade in his hand, others would laugh it off, but when the child has a steel blade, surrounding people would be vigilant; but when a child has a loaded pistol in his hand, then the people around would want to think of ways to disarm him. China’s policy considerations toward the South China Sea obviously cannot be based on one or two isolated conflicts. There also have to be considerations of other internal and external factors, such as an evaluation of public opinion and taking into account of the worst-case scenario of external forces intervening. Everyone is unwilling to lightly craft a response to break the rare balance currently in place.
Due to word count constraint and also not wanting to argue the core reason, I shall not further analyze the reason for the scenario described above. If interested, you could conduct a Google search of related articles I have written. However, if the hope is to change China’s real or perceived “angry yet not mighty, big yet not powerful” state, then there is need for tacit understanding and integration of diplomacy, military, and public opinion; we cannot always act the story of “crying wolf.”
A country’s strength and influence are not dependent on how many troops it has and how advanced the equipment is; rather, they are judged by its attitude, responses and ability to defend in regard to problems involving sovereignty. Because you cannot wish for yourself to develop and not others; you also cannot wish for problems to accumulate, to be all solved at once. Such a method would not only allow others to take advantage but would also increase the cost of solving the problems. Because no matter how powerful you are, you can never simultaneously solve the problems of the East and South Seas. Even if it is the South Sea problem, there is a need to choose a gap through which to attack. Similarly, the establishment and maintenance of a country’s prestige cannot be dependent on the courage and iron wills of one or two leaders. It is dependent on a strategic decision arrived at collectively taking into account a wide range of public opinion. Whether in name or in reality, even if China becomes tougher, there is no way its reputation can become worse than it is currently. China is clearly has not threatened other countries, and from now on has no need to threaten other countries. However, it should at least be able to guarantee that its claim to sovereignty is not threatened and that its so-called most basic attitude is respected. I am afraid it is difficult to fulfill this goal if we only hope to draw on diplomatic mediation or economic temptations.
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