- - Thursday, May 15, 2014

China has become a global power with extensive outreach to all continents. But it has never been so isolated.

Beijing, perhaps blindsided by its military buildup and a perceived decline in U.S. military capabilities, has revived fear and loathing among several of its 14 neighbors.

China is engaged in tense and frequently armed clashes with countries such as Japan, India, Vietnam, and the Philippines as a result of Beijing’s unyielding territorial claims disputed by its neighbors — claims that had been dormant for decades.

In addition, latent and potential clashes could involve other nations that have territorial disputes with China — such as Malaysia, South Korea, Bhutan, Indonesia, and Brunei.

Of course, China claims all of Taiwan as its own, and the communist mainland and democratic island governments technically still conduct business as adversaries.

Even North Korea has disputes with China over the border region of Baekdu Mountain; and South Korea has challenged Beijing over the Gando [Jiandao] region that covers China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous District.

China has border agreements with Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Myanmar. But nationalistic calls for regaining “lost Chinese territories” in those countries have flared increasingly in online media.

China’s strategy to end its isolation appears to blame its regional troubles on Japan and its pre-1945 colonial and wartime atrocities, which Beijing presents as moral justification for getting nasty with Tokyo.

But Japan-bashing is not helping China because most of the territorial disputes have less to do with Japan’s pre-1945 history than with China’s postwar geopolitical calculations. Few are buying China’s argument that today’s free and democratic Japan is endeavoring to revive its pre-1945 militarism and expansionism. China, not Japan, is widely viewed as a destabilizing source in the region.

So far, the strategy has backfired.

It has strengthened conservative forces in Japan led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose tough stance in rebuffing China’s propaganda onslaught has made him one of the most popular politicians in postwar Japan. It has forced Washington to officially vow to defend the Japan-administered Senkaku islands should China launch an attack.

And it has driven Japan and India, the two oldest and largest Asian democracies, much closer as allies in a bid to fend off China’s aggressive territorial demands.

More ominous for Beijing is the ascendance of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, who is openly hostile to China and is set to become India’s next prime minister.

Other regional players also are aligning themselves against China, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Philippines, Vietnam and Myanmar, which has been slipping away quickly from China’s influence in recent years.

China’s remedy for the current embarrassment is to drag Russia into the fray to demonstrate some degree of brotherhood against Japan.

But Russia, ostracized in the international community due to its gambit in Ukraine, has refused to play along with China in toto because it wants to befriend some of China’s adversaries, including Vietnam, India, and likely Japan.

While selling a great deal of arms to India and Vietnam for their defense buildup against China, Moscow has refused to take China’s side in the Senkaku dispute. Russia rejected China’s request and public announcement to hold upcoming Sino-Russian naval exercise next to the Senkaku Islands.

Steeped in one of its famed 36 ancient military strategies that dictates “Befriend those at a distance, attack those nearby,” China may have found itself the victim of its own ancient wiles.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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