India, China Take Different Roads to World Leadership

By Frank Ching

After decades of watching China follow Deng Xiaoping's dictum of taoguang yanghui - usually translated as "bide our time and build up our capabilities" - observers may be forgiven for thinking that China has decided its capabilities are sufficient and its time has come.

Indeed, China has acted in a decidedly arrogant manner, snubbing US President Barack Obama in Copenhagen by sending junior officials to negotiate with him, demanding that Japan apologize for the seizure of a Chinese shipping vessel and fulminating against the Nobel Committee for turning the peace prize into "a political tool that serves an anti-China purpose" by giving the award to a dissident serving an 11-year prison term.

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China's new assertiveness could stem from a combination of factors: rising nationalism within the country; the global financial crisis that suddenly elevated China's status; and a perception that a new world order is in the making, with the United States in inexorable decline.

None of this means that Beijing has abandoned the once touted theme of a "peaceful rise," though China abandoned the term years ago, regarding the word "rise" as provocative, with the rise of one implying the fall of others. And so, Chinese leaders adopted the term "peaceful development," something no one could reject since all countries can develop peacefully at the same time.

he rise in nationalism was probably inevitable. After all, China has been the world's fastest growing economy, having grown an average of 10 percent for the past 30 years.

The highly successful Beijing Olympics, at which China for the first time harvested more gold medals than the United States, added to the nation's sense of confidence.

When China first shifted from Maoist class struggle to economic development, it was prepared to learn at the feet of American gurus, but never accept a subordinate status.

In the aftermath of the tainted food scandal, for example, the United States asked to station its Food and Drug Administration inspectors in China. China agreed - but on condition that its inspectors could be stationed in the US to monitor the quality of American food exports to China.

After the financial crisis erupted in 2008, China has viewed the United States through a much more critical lens and does not hesitate to lecture its former teacher. The lectures encompass climate change, human rights, steering clear of China's disputes with other countries - and economics in particular.

The global economic crisis marked a turning point in China's relations with the West. In June 2008, Zhou Xiaochuan, governor of the People's Bank of China, said pointedly at a meeting of the US-China Strategic Economic Dialogue that China was no longer learning positive lessons from the United States, instead learning from its mistakes.

Despite the crisis, the Chinese economy continued to grow at 9 percent in 2009, as the US experienced a 2.9 percent contraction.

The European Union came knocking on China's door seeking help only to be told by President Hu Jintao that China must first run its own affairs and that China's growth contributed to global financial stability.

China's emergence as the major creditor to the United States also had an effect on the national psyche, especially when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pleaded with Beijing to continue buying US Treasury bonds and announced before her first official visit in 2009 that she would not emphasize human rights.

This role reversal, with the US seemingly dependent on China, has had an effect on many Chinese government officials, military officers and academics who believe that a new world order is underway and China needs to be treated with greater respect.

An early manifestation of this was when the Obama administration announced a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan in January 2009.

Instead of going through the motions of objecting then going back to business as usual, Beijing's response was vociferous. It not only suspended military-to-military relations with Washington, but also threatened to punish companies that sell weapons to Taiwan - something it had never done before.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates was bewildered, pointing out that arms sales to Taiwan "are nothing new" and "spanned multiple American administrations." True, but the two countries did sign an agreement in 1982 in which the US promised that its arms sales to Taiwan "will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years ... and that it intends to reduce gradually its arms sales to Taiwan, leading over a period of time to a final resolution."

It is difficult to reconcile that pledge with what Washington did since, including such major moves as selling 150 F-16s to Taiwan in 1992. Of course, the US can point to changes on the ground, such as China's missile buildup across from Taiwan, necessitating stronger defensive measures.

Chinese officials objected after each arms sale. But this time, they felt, the balance of power had shifted, and they had to be taken seriously. Chinese academics, too, have said that the US must at least honor its commitments. Chinese military officials were also outspoken, with little evidence of a split with the civilian leadership. The difference is one in emphasis, with the military being more outspoken and civilian officials more diplomatic.

One evident division in leadership is on political reforms. Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly spoken about reform, but his remarks are censored within China.

Despite China's occasional pledges not to mix economic and political issues, officials are prepared to use all of what they call their comprehensive national power - military, economic and even soft power - when engaged with an adversary, such as withholding the sale of rare earths.

But while change is underway, a new world order is still a work in progress. China has overtaken Japan to become the world's second largest economy. But it's far from being king of the hill.

Still, a brash new tone is often detected.

With the Obama administration having announced its "return" to Asia after years of neglect, the People's Daily published a commentary saying "US needs to ‘return' in a constructive way."

And a commentary in the Global Times had similarly candid advice for Japan, saying it "needs to mend China ties with genuine, practical moves." This, the commentary made clear, means that Japan must not use its military alliance with the US against China.

Given these new circumstances, what implications does China's rise have for its Asian neighbors and the West?

Some astute observers believe that China is reviving the tributary system that marked several thousand years of imperial rule, with countries on its periphery acknowledging Chinese supremacy albeit with no treaties spelling out the relationship. In an article titled "China's Second Rise: Implications for Global and Regional Order," Professor James C. Hsiung of New York University talks about the regional implications "under Pax Sinica."

"At the regional level," he writes, "the regions as they exist today will most likely survive, but under the influence of geoeconomics, states will find themselves more entangled in a labyrinthine network of free-trade associations, including cross-regional ones. In the Pacific Asian region, China will probably feel most comfortable playing the role of the exalted suzerain in an updated version of the Chinese tribute system from traditional times."

This means China expects neighboring countries to give priority to its interests and not make any decisions that may negatively impact them. That is to say, China comes first and its neighbors second.

China's neighbors, especially US allies such as Japan and South Korea, but also the countries of Southeast Asia, must ask themselves: Is this the future that we want for ourselves?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and writer whose book, "Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family," was recently republished in paperback.

Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010(c) Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

 

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