China’s trust problem
Roughly a decade ago, senior Chinese leaders became more acutely aware of the growing uneasiness in the international community over their country’s rapid increase of power. To allay fears of a rising China, Beijing came up with a reassuring message, encapsulated in the slogan “peaceful rise.” Although the phrase was later dropped in favour of an even more anodyne one, “peaceful development”, the essence of China’s reassurance remained the same: there is no need to get alarmed about our power; we will behave differently from other great powers in history.
Of course, despite Beijing’s repeated pledges of peaceful intentions, the rest of the world has kept its scepticism. For one thing, the historical record of conflicts between incumbent great powers and rising powers has provided no cause for complacency. One may find various reasons to suggest that conflict between China and the US-led West is avoidable. But there are equally plausible reasons why such a conflict may be quite likely. In addition, the international community may initially give Beijing the benefit of the doubt. Indeed, the utterance of “peaceful rise” by top Chinese leaders, including President Hu Jintao, was applauded in the United States and Asia. However, Chinese deeds, not words, would be the most convincing evidence that a resurgent Middle Kingdom will pose no threat to its neighbours, let alone directly challenge American hegemony.
Unfortunately, Chinese foreign policy behaviour in the last decade has failed to put to rest the fears of its neighbours and the international community. While on the whole Beijing has followed a pragmatic diplomatic strategy and refrained from directly challenging the status quo, the Chinese government has also engaged in many acts that are deeply disturbing. Topping the list is its military modernisation. As its economy grows, China has more resources to upgrade its military hardware and acquire new capabilities, such as quieter submarines, more advanced jetfighters, and smarter missiles. In the eyes of the Chinese, there is nothing wrong with this, especially considering the relative technological backwardness of the Chinese military. However, such a move inevitably disrupts the fragile balance of power in Asia: a militarily more capable China simply means a relative decline in the military capability of its neighbours and the region’s security guarantor, the US. The response to this classic “security dilemma” (one country’s pursuit of security makes other countries less secure) is predictable — other Asian countries have also increased their military spending and the US has rebalanced its military deployment to address the rising Chinese military might (popularly known as the pivot to Asia).
Sadly, in Beijing, these counter-moves are seen in a very different light. Instead of interpreting them as a natural response to China’s power, most Chinese policy-makers and strategic thinkers view them as part of a US-led ploy to constrain China and frustrate its legitimate aspirations of becoming Asia’s pre-eminent power. As a result, strategic distrust grows along with the potential for a more adversarial strategic rivalry between China and the US. If one is looking for the latest evidence, all one needs to do is read recent newspaper headlines on American plans to deploy anti-missile systems in Asia and China’s advance in its missile programmes.
This military modernisation alone probably would have caused less alarm had China successfully resolved its territorial disputes with its most important neighbours, such as Japan, India, and Vietnam. But that is not the case. To make things worse, in the last few years, Beijing has demonstrated a new firmness in asserting its maritime claims, specifically in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, Chinese claims have contributed to unprecedented tensions with Vietnam and the Philippines, and undone the image of a benevolent great power carefully crafted by China since the late 1990s. The clash with Japan over the Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu in Chinese, has escalated as well. Two years ago, the detention of the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler in the waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands led to a serious rupture in Sino-Japanese relations because Beijing used disproportional retaliation, including the suspension of exports of rare-earth materials to Japan, to force Tokyo to release the detained fisherman. This year, the Beijing-Tokyo ties have further deteriorated because of a series of diplomatic confrontations over the same islands. Constrained by domestic political factors (leadership transition in China and a weak government facing a snap election in Japan), neither side has shown willingness to back down.
Without assigning blame for the latest diplomatic fights and geopolitical tensions between China, the US, and China’s neighbours, we can probably agree on one thing: Beijing’s “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development” slogan has lost its appeal, if not credibility. After a decade of waiting for Beijing to match its words with deeds, countries that have the biggest stake in China’s peaceful rise are growing more, not less, concerned.
Assuaging the anxieties of its neighbours and regaining their trust should be among the top priorities of China’s new leadership. There are several things they can do right away:
First, Beijing needs to change its strategy for handling territorial disputes. Instead of vigorously asserting its claims, it must pledge to adhere to applicable international laws. For example, in the South China Sea dispute, its refusal to resolve the disputes through multilateral means and in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea has severely undermined its standing and credibility. A complete reversal here should help Beijing repair its relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and avoid a potential conflict with the other claimants, particularly Vietnam.
Second, China may have a legitimate reason to strengthen its military power, but it has to accompany its military modernisation with complementary measures of confidence-building and transparency. Genuinely reciprocal and substantive exchanges with the militaries of the countries most concerned with China’s defence modernisation, such as the US, Japan and India, will help reduce, though not eliminate, distrust. Establishing rules that will avoid accidents is another critical measure. Imposing tight restrictions on military deployment and exercise can also send a reassuring message.
Last, and most importantly, China’s new leaders will need to learn to see China’s rise not from Beijing’s perspective, but from that of the international community, particularly its neighbours. Such a change of perspective, rather than another marketing slogan, could go a long way towards calming their fears.
The writer is a professor of government and non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US