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May 26, 2017

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China needs to regain composure

China has generally handled its extraordinary global ascendance with finesse, assuring neighbors that it remains a developing country and is embarked on a "peaceful rise." This astute policy is informed by the past. Heirs of an ancient civilization, China's leaders have a keen sense of history, and Chinese strategists have studied the experiences of other rising powers intently.

Britain's smooth adjustment to being surpassed by the United States in the early 20th century is one case that gained China's attention.

Another, and very different, example is Germany's bid to challenge France's position in Europe and Britain's supremacy at sea in the late 19th century. That latter gambit evoked an alliance among Britain, France and Russia, led to Germany's encirclement, and eventually to a world war that brought disaster to Europe and defeat to Germany. It need not have been that way. Otto von Bismarck, who unified Germany after Prussia's defeat of Austria (1866) and France (1871), understood the importance of treading lightly and assuaging the fears of Germany's neighbors so that they would not join forces and encircle it. Once Kaiser Wilhelm dismissed Bismarck in 1890, he discarded the Iron Chancellor's strategy and embarked on what proved to be the ruinous path to 1914.

The lesson China seemed to take from these examples is that it should emulate Britain, not Wilhelmine Germany.

But something has changed of late. Beijing's diplomacy has lost its finesse.

Consider two recent examples. In September, Japan, cowed by China's chest-thumping, released the captain of the fishing boat it impounded after the vessel strayed into the waters adjoining a clump of islands (Senkaku in Japanese, Diaoyu in Chinese) that both Beijing, Taipei, and Tokyo claim but that the latter controls. But that was not enough to placate China's leaders, who could not resist follow-on opportunities to chastise and snub the Japanese even after Japan's prime minister backed down and drew fire at home for succumbing to intimidation.

And China did not confine itself to diplomatic displays of its displeasure. It barred the sale of rare earth minerals (crucial to the manufacturing of high-tech electronic equipment) to Japan. And despite signals that it was lifting the ban, shipments have not resumed. Beijing seemed unconcerned that other states would be rattled by the ban, given that China accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's current supply of this vital raw material.

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