“Will China invade its neighbors?” This is a question I tend to be bombarded with whenever I present lectures or attend talks on East Asian affairs. From Tehran to Tokyo, one can sense the growing anxiety towards China’s international influence. People are beginning to pay more attention to China’s military budget than its trade and investment relations with the developing world.
In sanctions-hit Iran, many merchants have been complaining about China’s allegedly opportunistic business practices, while industrialists and consumers have raised concerns over the macroeconomic and safety implications of cheap imports from China. In Japan, many are worried about their country’s ability to defend itself against a rising China, with the ongoing dispute in the East China Sea sparking a national debate over the proposed revision of Japan’s post-War pacifist constitution.
In countries such as the Philippines, popular views towards China have turned dramatically negative, particularly due to the ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea. Worryingly, the antipathy towards China has assumed even an ideological colour, with many Filipinos – including some top-level officials I have come across – rehashing Cold War paranoia vis-a-vis communist countries. In fellow communist countries such as Vietnam, China is increasingly seen in pejoratively historical terms: as an aggressive imperial power to the north.
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After all, recent years have seen a noticeable shift in China’s regional posturing. In the immediate aftermath of the recen financial crisis, which precipitated a dramatic economic downturn across the Western world, many Asian neighbours have woken up to a new China – one that is more vocal about its interests, and more capable of asserting them. No wonder many are worried that Asia will once again turn into a tragic site of great power politics.
The good old days
For years, many Asian scholars have painstakingly sought to explain the complexities of China’s inexorable rise, and how its ascent doesn’t necessarily equate to regional hegemony and territorial aggression. Similar to the Clinton administration, which vigorously espoused the integration of China into the global networks of production, many academics presumed that an isolated, poor China would always be more dangerous than a fully integrated one.
Subjecting China to the forces of economic globalisation, many liberal scholars argued, would “tame” its excessive passions, redress its historical grievances, and re-integrate one of the world’s greatest civilisations into the global economy as a legitimate stakeholder. Arguably, this formula worked – at least for some time.
In a span of three decades, China, beginning with Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in the late-1970s, transformed from a pariah state into a pivot of economic dynamism and regional stability in East Asia. To the delight of its troubled neighbours, China played an extremely constructive role during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, refusing to opportunistically revalue its currency to attract Western capital. To the bemusement of almost everyone, communist China soon became history’s most phenomenal model of capitalist expansion, catapulting the country to the pinnacle of the global economic hierarchy.
Beijing’s astute utilisation of low-interest loans and cultural diplomacy, coupled with its low-key foreign policy and calibrated official rhetoric, vastly enhanced China’s cachet of soft power, especially among smaller countries in Southeast Asia as well as developing countries in Africa and Latin America. Neighbouring countries, including Japan and the Philippines, welcomed China’s rise as a positive contribution to the expansion and deepening of trade and investment networks in East Asia.
During the Bush administration (2000-2008) – when much of the world resented the US’ hyper-power status, which underpinned its unilateral interventions in Eurasia – China managed to outshine Washington across much of the Asia-Pacific region, even in places such as Australia.
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Nevertheless, many Asian countries still welcomed America’s strategic footprint in the Pacific theatre, hedging against a possible deviation in China’s foreign policy.
The post-Deng China
Witnessing the swift defeat of (Soviet-armed) Iraq in the First Gulf War, China kicked-off a massive military modernisation programme in the 1990s, with increased focus on information warfare, blue-water naval power, and Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capabilities.
While Beijing tried to justify its growing military muscle as a primarily defensive measure, many neighbouring countries, especially Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, nervously watched the rapid shift in the balance of power in Asia. But no one could tell for sure whether China would abandon its charm offensive in favour of a more assertive foreign policy in the near future.
On the one hand, increased economic interdependence between China and its trading partners in Asia and the West was seen as a fairly effective disincentive against Chinese assertiveness. In addition, it was not until the twilight years of the Bush administration that the world fully realised the growing fiscal and strategic woes of the US – the supposed anchor of stability in Asia.
Aside from external factors, namely China’s integration into international markets and the balance of power in Asia, there were also domestic explanations for China’s largely constructive foreign policy, especially from the 1990s up until the mid-2000s.
During his time in power, Deng Xiaoping – China’s former paramount leader, whose ideas have shaped Chinese foreign policy for decades – constantly called for pragmatic, low-profile foreign policy, memorably stating “hide your strength, bide your time”. For him, the international system was tantamount to a Darwinian struggle for survival and power, lamenting, “development is the only hard truth… [and] if we do not develop, then we will be bullied.”
In many ways, the recent global recession marked a decisive turn in China’s foreign policy calculus. While China continued to post high growth rates, most leading Western powers, in turn, suffered a dramatic decline in their global standing. Moving to a high-middle-income country level, and flaunting increasingly sophisticated civilian and military technology, China was on the rise in both absolute and relative terms. Meanwhile, three decades of rapid capitalist expansion eroded societal belief in communist ideology, paving the way for a re-embrace of popular nationalism. Many Chinese felt that it was time to reclaim the country’s historical glory, with a special focus on asserting Chinese claims in the Western Pacific.
But as Indian strategist Brahma Chellaney eloquently describes, instead of invading neighbours, China has chosen to engage in “a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground”. In this way, Beijing has still created enough strategic space to avoid outright conflict with its neighbours. Nonetheless, international opinion on China has deteriorated, with the latest Gallup Poll suggesting that China – not Iran or North Korea – is seen as US’ number one foe.
More and more people are embracing the views of US political scientist John Mearsheimer, who has consistently argued that China’s rise will not be peaceful, because Beijing, like any other great power in history, will strive to dominate its own region. In the end, China might manage to win the hard battle against weaker neighbours and a wobbly US. But this would come at the expense of decades of hard-won Chinese soft power, especially among many developing countries that have come to admire China’s economic success and its contribution to a multipolar international order.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist on Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings”.