The Paradox of Blinking

SINGAPORE – The world has recently witnessed two major diplomatic blinks. Japan, facing mounting pressure from China, unconditionally released a Chinese trawler captain whose ship had rammed a Japanese naval patrol boat. And US President Barack Obama did nothing when Israel refused to extend its freeze on new building construction in the West Bank, causing Israeli West Bank settlers to rejoice.

In the short run, it is clear who lost. In the long run, however, the outcome of backing down may not be so clear. China, in particular, should weigh carefully the long-term political price of celebrating its supposed victory over Japan.

According to Newton’s third law of motion, “for every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.” Geopolitics has a similar law: whenever the world sees a new emerging power, the world’s greatest existing power tries, directly or indirectly, to block its rise. Today, the world’s greatest power is the US, and the greatest emerging power is China. So far, surprisingly, the US has not forged a strategy to thwart China’s rise.

The reasons for this geopolitical aberration are complex. But a key factor is that, until recently, China’s leaders have abided by the wise counsel of Deng Xiaoping: taoguang yanghui (conceal [our] capabilities and avoid the limelight), and shanyu shouzhuo (be good at keeping a low profile). China’s decision to browbeat the Japanese into submission over the fishing trawler, suggests that China may be throwing Deng’s geopolitical caution out the window.