Dispute with Japan highlights China's foreign-policy power struggle

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; 7:43 AM

The increasingly bitter dispute between China and Japan over a small group of islands in the Pacific is heightening concerns in capitals across the globe over who controls China's foreign policy.

A new generation of officials in the military, key government ministries and state-owned companies has begun to define how China deals with the rest of the world. Emboldened by China's economic expansion, these officials are taking advantage of a weakened leadership at the top of the Communist Party to assert their interests in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.

It used to be that Chinese officials complained about the Byzantine decision-making process in the United States. Today, from Washington to Tokyo, the talk is about how difficult it is to contend with the explosion of special interests shaping China's worldview.

"Now we have to deal across agencies and departments and ministries," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ties with China. "The relationship is extraordinarily complex."

Said a senior Japanese diplomat: "We, too, are often confused about China's intentions and who is calling the shots."

Japanese officials said the People's Liberation Army is responsible for the friction over the disputed island chain, known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China. In early September, Japan's coast guard detained the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler, accusing him of ramming a Japanese coast guard vessel. In previous crises, China's Foreign Ministry has acted as a calming influence, but this time, Japanese diplomats said, the military led the charge.

China responded by demanding the captain's release, suspending talks, canceling the visits of Japanese schoolchildren and on Thursday arresting four Japanese who allegedly were taking photographs near a Chinese military installation.

In an apparent effort to defuse the escalating tensions, Japan announced Friday that it would release the Chinese captain.

Washington signaled to Beijing on Thursday that it would back Japan in the territorial dispute. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: "Obviously we're very, very strongly in support of . . . our ally in that region, Japan."

Other examples

The island dispute is the latest instance of players other than the party's central leadership driving China's engagement with the outside world.

Throughout this year, officials from the Ministry of Commerce, who represent China's exporters, have lobbied vociferously against revaluing China's currency, the yuan, despite calls to the contrary from the People's Bank of China and the Ministry of Finance.

In Iran, China's state-owned oil companies are pushing to do more business, even though Beijing backed enhanced U.N. sanctions against Tehran because of its alleged nuclear weapons program. The China National Offshore Oil Co. is in talks to ramp up its investment in the massive Azadegan oil field just as Japanese companies are backing out, senior diplomatic sources said. The move by CNOOC would have the effect of "gutting" the new sanctions, one diplomat said. U.S. officials have stressed to China that they do not want to see China's oil companies "filling in" as other oil companies leave, a senior U.S. official said.

China's main nuclear power corporation wants to build a one-gigawatt nuclear power plant in Pakistan even though it appears to be a violation of international guidelines forbidding nuclear exports to countries that have not signed onto the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or do not have international safeguards on reactors. Pakistan has not signed the treaty.

"We have never had this situation before," said Huang Ping, the director of the Institute for American Studies at China's Academy of Social Sciences. "And it is troubling. We need more coordination among all agencies, including the military."

U.S. reaction

The U.S. government is trying to adapt to this new China with a mixture of honey and vinegar.

In July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton talked tough with China about its claims to the whole of the South China Sea, joining with Vietnam and 10 other Southeast Asian nations to criticize China's recent aggressive behavior in that strategic waterway.

That message - that China should ensure freedom of the seas and negotiate disputed claims peacefully - is expected to be reinforced Friday when President Obama meets in New York with leaders from Southeast Asian nations. Several U.S. officials said the People's Liberation Army and China's state-owned oil companies had been driving China's more forceful claims to the sea.

U.S. officials have also moved to establish more personal connections with Chinese officials. Last month, Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat, spent a full day with Cui Tiankai, one of 12 assistant Chinese foreign ministers, taking him to the Inn at Little Washington, a restaurant in Virginia. The entourage proceeded to a 30-acre farm belonging to a senior State Department official, where Cui took a ride on a tractor. And in an attempt to engage more Chinese stakeholders than in the past, Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner led the largest-ever delegation of U.S. officials to Beijing in May.

Several factors account for the rise of competing interests. President Hu Jintao has led the Communist Party for eight years, but it is not clear that he has ever been fully in control. After Hu took power in 2002, his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, stayed on as chief of China's military for two years. And Hu was the top man in a nine-member Politburo standing committee, but at least five of the seats were occupied by Jiang's allies.

"This is a time when the Chinese government is weak," said Shen Dingli, the executive dean of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. "As a result, different interest groups have been unleashed in a less coordinated and less centralized way."

Simultaneously, the influence of China's Foreign Ministry is waning. Dai Bingguo, the current foreign policy supremo has no seat on the powerful 25-member Politburo; the military has two, and the state-owned sector has at least one.

While there is competition across ministries in China, U.S. officials have focused on the gap between the civilian side of the government and the People's Liberation Army.

In recent months, military officers have begun to air their views on foreign policy matters, seeking to define China's interests in the seas around the country.

Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the army's general staff, has blasted the United States for its involvement in the South China Sea. And in August, Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan lashed out at the United States for reportedly planning to deploy the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea. (The George Washington was subsequently sent to the Sea of Japan, farther from China.)

Countering military

Not all of the military statements went over well in China. In recent weeks, the Foreign Ministry has begun to push back against the military. In recent interviews in Beijing, officials and senior advisers to the government excoriated the military for making policy pronouncements.

"For me, it is surprising that I'm seeing a general from the People's Liberation Army making a public statement regarding foreign policy, but this is China today," said Wu Jianmin, a former ambassador who helps run a think tank and advises China's leadership on foreign policy.

"This is not something the military should do," said Chu Shulong, professor of international relations at Tsinghua University. "These people don't represent the government, but it creates international repercussions when they speak out."

China's media is another factor in the fracturing of China's foreign policy. Another foreign policy player, the Ministry of Propaganda, has allowed the state-run press to criticize foreign governments as a way to bolster the Communist Party's position at home. As a result, China's newer publications, such as the mass-circulation Global Times, cover international affairs - in particular relations with the United States and Japan - with all the verve that People magazine pours into the adventures of Paris Hilton.

"We are not happy about many of the stories published today," Wu said. "We Foreign Ministry people have told them you shouldn't do that, but they say, 'So what? Let the Americans hear a different voice.' "

Shen, the American studies scholar, said some in China's leadership may support the idea of sending mixed messages on foreign policy as a way of testing the United States or Japan.

"The civilian government may think it does no harm," he said. "After all, if they succeed, it may advance China's interests."

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