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Columnists

Crisis talk

Paul Vallely

VallelyThere are nearly five million sites on the internet that will tell you that the Chinese character for the word crisis is a combination of the sinographs for two other words: 'danger' and 'opportunity'. The notion first entered popular culture in the West thanks to President John F Kennedy, who mentioned the concept in a speech, counselling that in a crisis we should 'be aware of the danger - but recognize the opportunity'. 

Management gurus, pop psychologists and New Age hokeys then adopted the notion but more recently it has begun to be used by political commentators contemplating what the rise and rise of China means for the rest of us.

When we look forward through the year to come, the presence of China seems likely to loom more prominently. For those with eyes to see it did a fair amount of looming last year. 2010 ended with Beijing trying to put pressure on other governments not to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony because it was being awarded to the human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo, who is languishing in a Chinese jail for publicly demanding political reform.

But that was far from all. Look back over the year and you see consistent signs of China flexing its muscles. There have been tensions with its neighbour India over the mountainous province of Arunachal Pradesh, clashes with Japan over the Senkaku islands, and live-fire exercises to threaten Vietnam in the South China Sea.

Then there was the scary moment in April when China mysteriously took over a seventh of the total internet for 18 minutes, sending out bogus signals that diverted data from US military and government websites - the Senate, army, navy, marine corps and Nasa - as well as leading companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Yahoo. It could have been a simple router misconfiguration. But it could have been a deliberate experiment to assert some level of control over the internet.

The month before, Canadian researchers discovered a spy network containing more than 1,300 computers, many of them in China, that had got into government systems. There had already been at least 35 severe Chinese cyber-attacks on Western targets in the decade to 2009, as well as a tightening by Beijing of controls on its 380 million domestic internet users. And Google satellite maps have begun mysteriously to show the names of towns in Arunachal Pradesh in Mandarin, not English or Hindi.

On top of all that China, having overtaken Japan as the region's most powerful economy, has been modernising its missiles, submarines, radar, cyber-warfare and anti-satellite weapons. It still spends only a sixth of what the United States does on military hardware. But it is building affordable 'asymmetric' weapons which pose a threat to the traditional US dominance of the trading lanes of Far Eastern seas.

All this may be what one commentator styled an 'adolescent foreign policy' intended to send out signals that China is arriving as a great power. But others grow anxious that China's military spending is hard to reconcile with its rhetoric about being interested only in territorial defence.

'All of you remember how much of your economic prosperity depends on us,' an angry Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, barked at a meeting of the South-East Asian nations in Hanoi last summer. The Indian prime minister has suffered vicious attacks in the People's Daily. Barack Obama was subjected to a finger-wagging by a junior Chinese official at the climate-change talks in Copenhagen. And David Cameron returned from his visit to China looking cowed.

There is another side to all this - the opportunity to go with the danger. Ever since Deng Xiaoping set about reforming the economy in 1978, China has talked peace.

Over the last decade it has transformed itself from an arch-protectionist into one of the strongest proponents of free global trade. For all the crackdown on those like Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, whom Beijing feels threaten social stability, ordinary Chinese people are allowed to express themselves, publicly and privately, online and in court, in ways unheard of 20 years ago. Public debate on the internet, though far short of  North American or European levels of openness, has been transformed.

There is only one problem with the line about a crisis combining danger and opportunity. It is not true. Chinese linguists insist that the character for crisis - wēijī - means 'danger' combined with 'pivotal moment'. The optimistic upside is a Western projection.

The risk with China is this. If the US does not prepare for confrontation, it leaves itself open to attack. If it does, it will constitute a threat in China's eyes. It is what the historian Herbert Butterfield called the 'irreducible dilemma'. Other Asian countries have already begun to draw closer to the United States. Better 'the water far away' they say than 'the fire nearby'.

Nothing is clear-cut. China has come out of the financial crisis stronger than ever. But the internal struggle between moderate and conservative voices within the Beijing establishment creates uncertainty about China's future direction. Many in the West believe that China is now too enmeshed in globalisation to see any advantage in injecting confrontation into the world economy. It holds $2.6 trillion of foreign-exchange reserves in the currencies of those who would be its enemies.

The year ahead will not provide the answer. The shift in the balance of power between the USA and China will take decades. But this year may offer more significant signposts. When Britain ceded dominance to the United States there was peace. But when power in Europe shifted from Germany to Britain there were two world wars. Today for the USA and China peace still makes sense. The months ahead may tell us whether that is to remain so.