Since Deng Xiaoping opened up China and initiated an era of unprecedented economic growth, the country was always supposed to be pursuing a “peaceful rise” on the world stage. Several recent incidents, from skirmishes in the South China Sea to China’s stubborn refusal to appreciate its currency, cast doubt upon the Middle Kingdom’s peaceful intentions however.
Conflict has been brewing in the South China Sea recently where China’s revisionist stance on maritime borders has frustrated Southeast Asian neighbors and the United States alike. This body of water, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeast China, is of great strategic importance to the Chinese but similarly vital to the continental Asian countries as Thailand and Vietnam as well as Indonesia.
Little wonder that the ASEAN member states, the Philippines in particular, have urged America to intervene. American secretary of state Hillary Clinton, visiting the region in July, thus declared the disputes in Southeast Asia of “national interest” to the United States. That statement prompted a fierce response from Beijing where the foreign minister accused Clinton of “attacking China.” He added, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.”
Incidents and statements like these only intensify the level of Sinophobia exhibited in military and policy making circles in Washington DC where the anything but imminent end of American ascendancy has politicians worried already. Sino-Indian rivalry is also heating up while just last month, Beijing managed to bully and coerce the Japanese into circumventing legal process after a Chinese fishing trawler rammed a Japanese vessel in disputed waters. Even if Tokyo appeared willing to submit to its neighbor’s demands, China canceled diplomatic meetings, cut off the export of rare earth materials upon which Japanese industry depend and demanded a formal apology from the Japanese government.
The American policy of “strategic assurance” toward China obviously hasn’t been working. China doesn’t intend to claim world hegemony nor challenge American superpower — its strategy is grounded in upholding national security and unity to ensure what Beijing mandarins like to call “national development” — but China does believe that it enjoys a natural leadership position in East Asia and is now willing to assert it, with force if need be.
Once it becomes clear that the United States cannot credibly defend Taiwan, Robert Kaplan predicts that “China will be able to redirect its naval energies beyond the first island chain in the Pacific (from Japan south to Australia) to the second island chain (Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands) and in the opposite direction, to the Indian Ocean.” To wit, China is building a blue water navy — one that is still far behind the US in terms of sheer force — and helping to fund and construct ports in Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Indeed, across the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific, China is laying a string of pearls to protect its interests.
China overplayed its hand with regard to the South China Sea dispute and Japan in recent months which will likely temper its ambitions for a while but nonetheless, the West will have to learn to cope with a more independent minded China in the years to come; a China that will not necessarily submit to the American world order of the past half century. That is not to say that China is an enemy. But it is a great power and has to be treated as such.