China rises, China acts
4 Jun 2015|

President Xi Jinping

China is starting to give Asia a big case of initiative fatigue. Too many ideas, too much activism. As Simon and Garfunkel crooned, ‘slow down, you’re moving too fast!’

Xi Jinping confirms he’s the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping by abandoning Deng’s central foreign policy advice. No more keeping a low profile and biding your time. China’s time is now. And doesn’t Asia know it.

China is offering up lots of cash to buy friends and build relationships—Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road, plus the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRICs bank and the negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (everyone in but the US). Then there are the Asia-for-Asia-run-by-Asians ideas from Xi: the New Asian security concept and Asia Pacific dream. No prizes for picking the superpower that is excluded from that Asia dream.

All this feeds into the discussion of changing relativities and the flux in Asia’s balance of power. Much of the debate is about where China’s initiatives will lead and what China really wants.

As always in such discussions, turn to one of the great thinkers and writers about China’s history in Asia, Wang Gungwu.

Writing from Singapore, Wang notes that the problem confronting ASEAN is to form a realistic assessment of China’s intentions and America’s resolve.

In considering the Beijing intention side of that equation, Wang thinks, as he always does, of the long sweep of China’s history:

China’s key problem is how to convince its neighbours that it has no intention to move from being assertive to being aggressive. It does not seek to replace American with Chinese dominance. Its national interest lies in creating an environment in which China will not be feared as a superpower but respected for its wealth and creativity, necessary conditions for a modern civilisation.

The Asian interest, Wang says, is in a China that succeeds. And that means China as the Asia superpower. A significant judgement from Wang Gungwu is that China will be a different sort of beast, aspiring to its natural role as a civilisational superpower. The Chinese White Paper proclaims the ambition for a blue water navy, yet Wang believes Chinese habits of mind will pull in other directions. The British or US model of the naval superpower, he thinks, is not a natural fit for China:

If China is prosperous and strong, it will be a superpower in Asia. It is not in the region’s interest to try to prevent China from being that. But there is no reason to believe that the Chinese will copy the British and the Americans and try to build a superpower based on naval might to maximise their global dominance. This kind of concept is absent from the Chinese heritage. Zheng He’s [15th Century] voyages were an aberration in China’s maritime history. The voyages showed capacity but no ambitions to dominate the seas or build maritime empires. The voyages were stopped when they proved that there were no enemies that threatened China from the seas. The imperial court’s decision to destroy the navy was an action consistent with China’s heritage, not the voyages before that. China’s history thus suggests that it seeks to be a power founded on economic wealth and technological brilliance – the factors which made its civilisation admired for millennia.

Economic wealth and technological wealth is a great place to start, but a central problem for China as leader is to get enough followers. In the followship stakes, China has to convince Southeast Asia. ASEAN should be a natural part of China’s realm. Beijing’s confidence in its power, as expressed in its multiple initiatives, is that the followers will have to fall in behind.

ASEAN has become a key target for China’s assertiveness—a point made at the Asia Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur, by Aileen Baviera, from the Asia Centre at Philippines University:

China’s vision is clear, and part of its realist assumptions is that, being a big power in its part of the world, it will not encounter much resistance from smaller states in its periphery. Even in instances where the pursuit of its economic sovereignty and security goals bring it into conflict with other states, China believes it has the means to prevail…a belief that, after all the screaming and kicking that may take place from those who have difficulty adjusting to a new environment where China will have become the dominant power, states will eventually get used to it. Countries care most about economic welfare, it is argued, and for as long as cooperation with China can offer material benefits, threat perceptions can be mitigated.

Baviera makes the point that the region understands—but China seeks to ignore—that Beijing’s assertiveness and coercive behaviour saps its ability to build strategic trust with not only the Philippines and Malaysia, but also Indonesia and Singapore.

A China that’s a cause of conflict rather than a security provider will tear at ASEAN. I would argue that the US has long demonstrated its acceptance of the language and the forms of ASEAN’s proclaimed neutrality. And the US has shown it can live with ASEAN’s understanding of its own centrality.

The new China is going to different places and is asking harder questions of the region. Baviera poses those questions in sharp terms:

Will the broader Asian security architecture envisioned by China not diminish the relevance of ASEAN itself and spell the end of ASEAN centrality? Given the current security situation in the seas of East Asia, will China’s continued military buildup not spur a full-blown regional arms race and turn a relatively peaceful and stable region into one with high risk of armed conflict?

Great questions with no firm answers. Asia can live with lots of multilateral initiatives from China. It’s the power for unilateral actions where the nightmares lurk.