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Who’ll Get Thrown Off the Island?

The greater East Asian co-hostility sphere.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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Not much is known about Xi’s personal policy preferences, but at a September speech at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, he used what the South China Morning Post called a “tougher tone on .  .  . disputes,” saying, “We are firm in safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” With the Chinese economy indisputably slowing, the new president and his party may find it strategic to inflame anti-Japanese nationalism further in order to deflect internal criticism from China’s ever more restive populace.

Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, says it is likely that China’s current foreign policy assertiveness

is not simply leadership posturing, but a combination of leadership weakness (it has no real direction in foreign policy); national arrogance (it’s weathering the global economic downturn, enjoys rising comprehensive national power, has eclipsed Japan economically, etc.); and rising nationalism on the part of the populace. If this is correct, then the Chinese will continue to push their neighbors. Coupled with growing military capabilities, the Chinese may see themselves as ascendant in the region, and therefore conclude that they have little need to negotiate with smaller states, but will expect deference from them.

Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, predicts, “There will be a short period of caution as the new Chinese leadership finds its footing. But then they will need to do something in the East and South China Sea to show that they are not breaking from Hu Jintao’s guidance and to consolidate support from the [Chinese military].”

Still, there are some who remain stubbornly optimistic that China’s new president will forge a fresh, less combative course. Douglas H. Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for example, said that with the leadership changes, he hopes “there will be some adjustments and improvements, because there have been some rough patches in recent years.” Henry Kissinger went further in a panel discussion last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center, saying, “I do not believe that great foreign adventures .  .  . can be on their agenda.”

Then again, I happened to be in Beijing during the last leadership transition, when Hu Jintao became president. All the talk at that time had Hu going to lead a great liberalization of Chinese politics, loosening restrictions on the press and possibly even paving the way for democracy. We know how well that worked out.

Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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