Jacob Heilbrunn

China's Wakeup Call to America

Is this the end of the Prius? In retaliation for Japan's incarceration of a Chinese shipping captain for ramming two Japanese patrol boats in the East China sea, Beijing is halting exports of rare earth minerals to Japan, which are esssential for manufacturing products like the Prius. But if ever there was a time to thank China, this is it. Beijing's decision should come as a wakeup call to Washington, DC to reopen a rare earth mine in Mountain Pass, California and end its dependence on China.

As John Lee notes on this website, China is engaging in increasingly ham-fisted diplomacy and muscleflexing, particularly in claiming rights to the South China sea. It's already backfiring. China is singlehandedly reviving the Japanese-American security alliance and prompting other countries in the region to look more favorably on Washington. America remains the only power that can balance a rising China. As Edward Wong observes in the New York Times, "rising frictions between China and its neighbors in recent weeks over security issues have handed the United States an opportunity to reassert itself — one the Obama administration has been keen to take advantage of."

China would have done better to keep a lower profile. It should already have moved to increase pressure on North Korea to reach a deal on its nuclear weapons program. Instead, it has tried to take a hands-off stance, which is tantamount to coming down on the side of Pyongyang. Its bluster about the South China sea is counterproductive as well.

Its also likely to reignite fears of the rise of a new evil empire in Asia. The last go-around came about a decade ago when Ross Munro and Richard Bernstein wrote an overheated book called The Coming Conflict With China, which essentially prognosticated a new cold war with Beijing. In the 1990s the neoconservatives constantly hyped the China threat. It was 9/11 that prompted the threatmongers to shift their attention to Araby.

Now China may be giving them fresh sustenance with its overwrought reaction to Japan's incarceration of a shipping captain. Instead of playing the nationalist card and whipping its population into a frenzy, Beijing would be well-advised to reach a deal with Tokyo to end the impasse. The lesson it should draw is that its bluff and bombast are not advancing China's interests but undermining them.

If nothing else, imagine how enraged potential Prius buyers will be if they can't purchase the cult vehicle. China has enough anatgonists already. Beijing could stand up to the American military, but it would be foolish to court the wrath of the environmental lobby.