China, acknowledged as the new centre of gravity in the world, is the dominant political and economic power in Asia-Pacific. How China develops domestically and behaves internationally are among the two most critical questions for the future. Because of the sweeping expansion of its comprehensive national power, China has seen an exponential increase in its weight in the global economy, in Asian and global power balances, and in regional and global governance institutions. Not only was the US “pivot” to Asia in reality a China pivot; since then Japan, Russia and the Southeast Asian countries have also been reorganising their foreign policies around the central principle of a rising China.
If the country is able to sustain its course for another decade or two, its rise will alter the architecture of the international system in profound ways, some of which could prove deeply unsettling. Previously, the ascendant and triumphalist West had written the rules and made all the big decisions on the international economy, trade and peace and security. Western ideas gained global ascendancy not because they were intrinsically superior but behind bombers, battleships and aircraft carriers. Today, there is a significant economic, geopolitical and even moral rebalancing in train in global norms, institutions and practices.
As legacy disputes from history are dusted off the shelf by an increasingly assertive China, four propositions are worth recording about the Sino-centric Asia-Pacific regional order.
First, unlike the European powers, China has no historical, philosophical or literary tradition or discourse of acting as a great power in a system of great powers. Rather, its inheritance is that of the Middle Kingdom with tributaries accepting its suzerainty and paying tribute in return for not being attacked. Both Beijing and the world are having to adjust rapidly to the new reality of China as a global player.
Second, the unique feature of the contemporary international transition is the simultaneous relative rise and decline globally between the China-US dyad, and in Asia between India and China.
Third, China has been a continental and not a maritime power. Now, its maritime interests and activities are growing. It has steadily been building a power projection capability by investing in a blue-water navy. In 2012 and 2013, China joined anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. Last summer, its warships sailed through the Soya Strait between Japan and Russia, breaking through the “first island chain” that separates the South China, East China and Yellow Seas from the Pacific Ocean. In October, they navigated the Strait of Magellan at the bottom of South America. And in February this year, Chinese warships were spotted in the Sunda Strait between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. As China fills out as a major power, uncontested US primacy will become increasingly unsustainable while US withdrawal from the region could be destabilising.
Fourth, for China, matters of status and identity trump calculations of economic gain and pain. Westerners may believe that the growing integration and interdependence of China with the regional and international economy makes armed conflict too costly to contemplate and that the Pacific military balance is so heavily in favour of the US that China would not be foolish enough to challenge Washington. But what if Beijing believes that the costs to Washington would be so high that the US would back down? Along many such misperceptions and miscalculations do the bloody rivers of human history flow into the ocean of oblivion for once-great powers.
Between containment and appeasement
Thus, a danger remains of a strategic disconnect between China as the emerging superpower and the US as the status quo superpower, with primacy steadily displaced by primus inter pares — first among equals. During this critical transition, conflict will turn to war if China’s legitimate aspirations are thwarted and its interests attacked, particularly in the context of two centuries of slights, injustices and humiliations inflicted on China by the West and Japan. But equally, the stage will be set for conflict down the line if the opposite posture of appeasement is adopted.
The region will continue to live in interesting times. Tensions are rising in the contested East China and South China Seas, with the potential to impact adversely on the interests of all other Asian and Pacific countries, including Australia and India. Many Asians may be too busy making money to think of making war. But not all Asians privilege money-making over wounds to national pride. It would be foolish to underestimate the power of raw politics to inflame nationalist passions to the point of a destructive conflagration.
China seems to be pursuing a three-pronged strategy of building up warfighting capabilities, calibrated shows of force and a strategy of exhaustion of rival claimants. Apparently random and sporadic acts of provocations and showdowns may fail to coerce and intimidate opponents. But each push and probe tests retaliatory assets and calls into question US capacity and will to come to the aid of the beleaguered smaller ally. That is, acts of provocation that are deliberately held below the threshold of open warfare are calculated to induce strategic fatigue over time, erode regional confidence and cumulatively break the political resolve to resist.
The modernisation of China’s military (including missile, nuclear, space and cyber assets) has been going on for several decades. Its military expansion is changing the Pacific balance of power in a direct challenge to Australia’s strategic weight. The growth of China’s long-range strike and air and naval power projection capabilities has eroded the advantages of Australia’s geographical isolation and is reducing the warning time it would have against an enemy. Australia appears in Chinese eyes to have joined the US in a de facto containment strategy, as indicated by public statements in both capitals, the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific, the decision to station a contingent of US marines at Darwin in northern Australia, and also the build-up of military links with India by Australia, Japan and the US. What US officials and analysts portray as “rebalancing” can be (mis)read as “overbalancing” or even an attempted “counterbalancing” of China’s rising power and influence in the region.
A Sino-centric order?
What to many westerners is a new world disorder appears to many non-western observers as a shifting global order. If the sun never set on the British empire in a previous century, it is rising once again in the east. Pax Britannica was built on territorial control through legal colonialism that allowed Britain to extract, process, move and use or sell ownership of vast natural resource endowments around the globe. Pax Americana was built much more on control of resources through market access guaranteeing regimes that ensured a worldwide flow of capital, goods and technology to underpin US prosperity and security. By building global markets instead of a global empire, the US escaped legal responsibility for the security and welfare of its neo-colonial dependants. It succeeded by convincing others that “global public goods” were, if not synonymous with, then at least dependent on an order guaranteed by US hegemony.
A rising and resilient China is dependent no longer on US markets, managerial know-how and technology, nor on US power (to offset superior Soviet power during the Cold War). As China expands its power and influence through buying goods and access and underwriting and building infrastructure in Asia, Africa and Latin America to cement geopolitical ties, boost trade and create energy corridors, so far at least it seems to have ignored the importance of conflating regional/ global public goods with Chinese national interests. It has become notably more assertive on issues ranging from climate change talks to Internet freedom, relations with India, and territorial disputes in the East China and South China Seas. Chinese officials and influential analysts from its State-funded think tanks have been issuing a string of tough statements. Thus, when a US grand jury indicted five Chinese military officers for cyber-espionage recently, Chinese officials quickly pointed to US hypocrisy and double standards in the context of revelations by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden about the massive scale of American electronic surveillance.
There has been considerable discussion in the international press of uneasy parallels — with some pointing to similarities and others highlighting major differences — between the developing situation in East Asia today and the Balkans tinderbox one hundred years ago. At the heart of the conversation is China’s parallel with a rising Germany a century ago. One line of argument holds that China is courting disaster by ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s sage advice to hide its light under a bushel and seek obscurity. The thesis of a peaceful rise has few takers left. In a recent article in The National Interest, for example, the prominent Realist scholar John Mearsheimer asks: “Can China rise peacefully?” In a conversation in which I took part, a very senior Chinese official insisted that Beijing does not take the first step in any provocation, but will take two steps in retaliation if provoked by another country.
The gathering pushback
China may be ignoring fundamental military weakness vis-à-vis the US in picking fights. Incidents have been provoked with Japan for four years continually. More recently, Beijing has also publicly antagonised Vietnam, moving an oil rig near islands claimed by Hanoi but under Chinese control, and a flotilla of Chinese boats sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel. Hanoi permitted anti-China riots in which four people were killed and 3,000 Chinese were evacuated from Vietnam in March. China has attempted to control waters used by Filipino fishermen, leading Manila to invite back US troops who had been ordered out of Subic Bay naval base in the 1990s. The provocations have given Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe domestic space to seek revisionist interpretations of the restrictive post-World War II pacifist Constitution to permit a more robust overseas deployment of Japanese Self-Defence Forces.
Growing fears of the more assertive China have trumped regional anxieties about a remilitarising Japan as well as made many countries eager to welcome a more visible US presence and role. Abe has offered coastguard vessels to Vietnam and the Philippines and is obviously eager to deepen security links with Australia and India as well as the US. The joint statement at the conclusion of Abe’s visit to India as chief guest on Republic Day included a reference to the “importance of freedom of overflight and civilian aviation safety in accordance with the recognised principles of international law”. This was a pointed and barely disguised dig at China’s unilateral declaration on 23 November 2013 of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed islands, which Japan has chosen to ignore.
Speaking at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on 31 May, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel accused China of destabilising the South China Sea and warned that Washington would “not look the other way” when nations ignored international rules. Referring to how China has claimed territorial rights over areas of the South China and East China Seas close to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, he added: “We firmly oppose any nation’s use of intimidation, coercion, or the threat of force to assert these claims.”
The alternative interpretation is that Deng’s advice was time-bound, not a permanent injunction. US power, wealth and influence are waning while China’s are growing. Time is on China’s side. The US will not risk a full-fledged open confrontation with China over relatively small and minor incidents like a Vietnamese boat sunk, a submerged reef captured or an uninhabited rocky island contested. But each probe tests the patience and resolve of the regional country and gradually increases scepticism about the reliability of the US security option. Washington is in no position to challenge Beijing on every provocation, yet each provocation that goes unchallenged improves China’s leverage over its neighbours and weakens US’ standing.
As China steadily creeps forward, it becomes more interested in advancing the concept of “a new model of great power relations” in the new bipolar world, a concept that quickly became identified with the new President, Xi Jinping. Unfortunately, however, it meant different things to Beijing and Washington. To China, it was a means of acknowledging its new co-equal status and respect for its core interests. But to Washington, it meant a formula for managing competition and gaining China’s cooperation on critical geopolitical challenges. It also risked mis-communicating the message to third countries that the US was accommodating China in a G-2 condominium to run the world.
Cooperate when possible, compete if necessary
Like Pakistanis with respect to their crushing defeat in the 1971 Bangladesh War, Indians have found it difficult to overcome the psychological hurdle of the 1962 syndrome when the Indian military was humiliated by China. Both bilateral relations have an excess of trust deficit that has built up over the decades. And in both India-Pakistan and China- India equations, the bilateral gaps in economic weight, military power and global influence have widened over the past two-three decades. The asymmetric threat perception, where Indians feel far more threatened by China and Pakistanis by India, than the other way round, is explained by the gap. This makes it easy for gestures of conciliation and goodwill to be overshadowed even by minor incidents.
In April 2013, for instance, Sino-Indian relations dipped with the three-week, 19-km Chinese military incursion into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control in the Depsang plains across from Aksai Chin. This took the gloss off the fact that China’s new Premier, Li Keqiang, deliberately chose to travel to India in May 2013 as his first trip abroad. Yet, both sides showed commendable calm and patience in resolving the incident through diplomacy.
In addition, as well as concerns about China’s military and nuclear assistance to Pakistan, India remains wary of China’s role and activities in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean. Diplomatic incidents include issues of stapled visas for Indian citizens from particular regions, or for military officers serving there. India also has a deficit of $40 billion in bilateral trade with China, some of which is attributable to restricted market access. For all these reasons, the search for deeper and broader engagement with China is also hedged with a diversified portfolio of partnerships with countries across Asia and the Pacific, as well as with the US. For its part, China is mindful of growing security links between India, the US, Japan and Australia and it remains reluctant to support India’s quest for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
This is the second in a four-part series on Asia’s changing power balance.
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