Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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China’s Fear Strategy

DENVER – Not long ago, China was a soft-power juggernaut. Media accounts highlighted Chinese leaders’ thoughtful forays abroad, depicting policymakers that were respectful of others’ opinions, willing to listen, humble to a fault, and reluctant to dispense unsolicited advice. Here was a country that was content to allow its own example of success to speak for itself.

Those days are over. Today, China, like many large countries, is allowing its internal political battles to shape how it interacts with the world, especially with neighbors whose sensitivities it seems entirely willing to ignore. (Indeed, with alarm bells sounding throughout the region, the United States’ “pivot to Asia,” widely derided for its clumsy rollout and unintended consequences, now seems wise and prudent.)

A country’s historical experience exerts a powerful force on its contemporary behavior, and China is no exception. Since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, European states, with some notable exceptions, have understood the basic rules of the diplomatic game; moreover, they have had considerable success exporting Westphalian concepts – particularly that of sovereign equality under international law – to many other parts of the globe.

China’s legacy is different. Neighbors have not been equals so much as tributary states. Alliances have often been conceived as representing little more than a calculation that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Today, China is widely described in Southeast Asia as a bully, disrespectful of others’ opinions, let alone their interests. Nowhere is this more evident than with the countries surrounding the South China Sea, the lifeblood of maritime Southeast Asia and of China’s northeastern neighbors, Korea and Japan. China seeks to turn the South China Sea into a southern Chinese lake, and has included sovereignty over a disputed group of rocks in the East China Sea among its so-called core interests.

Scores of countries around the world have conflicting territorial claims, especially in maritime matters. But most observe a rule that is deeply embedded in international law and custom: claims should be pursued peacefully and by mutual consent. Unilateral assertion of such claims creates tension and increases the threat of violent conflict – often the result of miscalculation or accident.

In November, China unilaterally established an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea. In the South China Sea, it has recently introduced a notification system for fishing. Given China’s assertions of territorial claims, no one is buying its portrayal of these moves as safety procedures; rather, they are seen as part of a cynical exercise in “salami tactics” – gaining de facto sovereignty over disputed territory one slice at a time.

It is highly unlikely that China’s leaders are concerned that longstanding claims by Southeast Asian countries like Brunei could soon be realized, or that Chinese claims could be lost to history. Given the extent to which China’s foreign policy is shaped by the pursuit of long-term raw-material supplies – including the South China Sea’s hydrocarbon reserves – could the claims be economic in nature?

Perhaps. But another explanation seems at least equally compelling: China’s domestic political tensions.

Chinese leaders and strategic thinkers (groups that do not always overlap) often talk of China’s aversion to the disorderliness of democracy. China’s political system, they assure us, is more disciplined and decisive.

But all political systems must address conflicting interests, and when the process is carried out in informal channels, infighting can soon devolve into a brawl. And China’s institutions are pitted against one another as never before. The internal security services compete against the military for resources and influence, and both compete against civilian institutions.

Moreover, one government agency often has no idea what another is doing. Adjudication of institutional competition sometimes must go all the way to the top, where Chinese leaders struggle to maintain control and balance.

Indeed, despite appearances, President Xi Jinping’s reform agenda involves not so much a grand vision of the future – what Xi calls the “Chinese Dream” – as a capacity to navigate the complex political calculations that need to be made to ensure that everyone will be satisfied enough not to rebel. One can only imagine the inbox of problems that he confronts every morning.

Above all, Xi must maintain a strong relationship with the security and military bureaucracy. Without their support, he will not succeed in implementing the reforms that China needs in order to avoid the so-called middle-income trap. So he could be doing what leaders everywhere must do: picking his battles and setting his priorities. Moreover, given that nationalism in China often serves as a proxy for popular frustration with the authorities, one can see why the government, not wishing to be outflanked, has not placed Japanese, Filipino, South Korean, or Vietnamese sensitivities among its top priorities.

And yet, unless China improves its relations with its neighbors, its international image will continue to take a beating. It could start with a more respectful attitude toward the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Chinese leaders’ insistence on bilateral negotiations with ASEAN’s members, rather than with the bloc as a whole, has done nothing but fuel anxiety and resentment in the region.

Nor will China get very far with the spurious argument that the US is somehow stirring up regional hostility against it, as if such mischief would be in the long-term interest of an America that already has enough on its plate. Instead, China should encourage the development of multilateral structures – again, beginning with ASEAN – that can manage the economic benefits of disputed territories. Good fences, as the saying goes, make good neighbors.

Read more from "China's Challenges"

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Ambassador Hill, while most countries value the "Westphalian concepts – particularly that of sovereign equality under international law" , China swears by another Westphalian principle - the respect for national sovreignty, as a key factor in international relations. It supports the idea that each country is responsible for what happens inside its own borders and no one else should be allowed to interfere.
    That China sees its weaker neighbours not as "equals" and treats smaller countries as "tributary states" is nothing abnormal. Russia hardly sees Finland and Norway as its equals. Nor does the US see Mexico. Although China has no natural allies in the international community, it doesn't necessarily see "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Realpolitik dominates its foreign policies' agenda.
    The territorial disputes that China is embroiled with its neighbours, are most unfortunate for the region and its strategy could be backfired. But is it a strategy of fear? No, but deep mistrust towards China is growing, and an arms race is brewing in Asia. It's no secret that China's military spending is higher than Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam combined - $112 bn, compared to the US, with its $600 bn. China's rise to power is driving defence expenditure in Asia up by 23% since 2010. The territorial disputes could have been the cause for China's ambitions to become a major maritime power.
    It's quite unlikely that China seeks military confrontation in its territorial disputes with various neighbours. Should any of the disputes erupt into an open conflict, China would be on its own, without allies. Aggressive foreign policies can sometimes be used to distract the home public from domestic problems. Again, leaders should never underestimate their own citizens. Their reaction can be unpredictable.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    United States (of America), Republic (of France), People's Republic (of China) all show history and/or aspiration of these countries. America, France, and China are geographical designations and tell us where these countries are.

    The formal name of China in Chinese is represented by seven Chinese characters. The first two stand for center (central) civilization or center of civilization; the second two for people or people's; the third two for republic or repubican and the last one for country. No one can find a geographical name, China, in it. The center of civilization or the central civilization is enough to the Chinese mind. In passing, we know from people's that it is a people's democracy and not a democratic country.

    "Chinese feelings of cultural superiority are monumental, deriving as they do from a three thousand year tradition (Edwin O. Reischauer.)" (Reischauer spoke, as far as I know and East Asian languages are concerned, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean.)
    "One determining influence on East Asian civilization has been its relative isolation from the other great civilizations of mankind (Reischauer.)" China could boast of its grandeur as its neighbors, Korea and Japan, etc., were all petty. China continued to slumber in the dogmatic dream of its own grandeur when it suffered miserable defeat in the Opinum War with Great Britain, thinking that those Western devils would be ultimately made to kneel down and kow-tow before its greatness. It was only when it was defeated by a contemptible, small island country in the war of 1894-95 that it was rather shocked out of its peaceful doze. Today, however, Chinese young people are taught at school that China was awakened by its defeat in the hands of the British. It is prepostrous to teach them that it was awakened by the war with Japan. "...the Chinese have never reciprocated the warm feelings of the Japanese, viewing them with distrust and more than a little contempt (Reischauer.)"

    Chinese economy had shared, for eighteen thousand years until the 19th century, twenty to thirty percent of the whole world's ecnomic production, but this doed not mean that per capita GDP was high and that people in general enjoyed a high standard of living, not because the enormous GDP divided by the gigantic population yields a very small per capita income, but because one % of the population had monopolized the gigantic national wealth.

    We said until very recent years, "Small is beautiful." But in China, "Gigantic is beautiful." George F. Kennan came to Japan in 1964 and exchanged views and opinions. When he talked with a small group of people of Kyoto University, a Japanese said to him, probably what he had heard from his father who was a distinguishe Sinologist, "The Chinese despise flowers like daisies; you look down and see them. They admire flowers (blossoms) that come out on a tall tree; you look up and see them."
    The Chinese who have ruled in China have had gigantic political power; gigantic wealth has accrued to it; the gigantic masses of people have suffered gigantically; those who have had gigantic power and wealth have felt gigantic indifference to the gigantic sufferings of people.

    China had been an autarkical country before its contact with modern Western intruders, as "...the Emperor of China told King George III that China possessed all things in abundance and wanted no foreign goods (G. B. Sansom.)" But China today finds itself in a totally different world and Chinese intellectual people seem to be increasingly coming to be aware of that fact,

    China will try to increase its sphere of influence through what Henry Kissinger said to a Japanese, osmosis. China's Fear Strategy would be void if we see its substance and its shadow and do not flich, as it expects us to step back an inch or two at a time. A Chinese writer read Yasunari Kawabata's The Snow County. (Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1968.) He said, "He marveled at the warm inter-personal relations of Japanese. The Chinese are always abusively brawling at each other."

    Incidentally and lastly a word or two about Japanese so-called imperialism. I want to dispell many misunderstandigs: It was Japan, far more than China, that adjusted itself to and accepted modern international norms since the 19th century. The Japanese have traditionally thought that bonnie things lie over the ocean; the Chinese have thought that bonnie things are all in the Middle Kingdom.
    Even in the so-called militaristic 1930s, Europeanization, particularly Americanization was progressing in many aspects of Japanese life, particularly in urban areas, etc.

  3. CommentedPrem Swaroop

    They are aggressive and their leaders are farsighted. China currently holds close to about $1.2 trillion of bills notes and bonds according to US Treasury. They have complete monopoly on the rare metals trade, somewhere close to 97%. Their interests in Africa is growing by the day and it wouldn't be long before they gain total control of the world and despite all this, we still call America the world's most powerful nation.

      CommentedCraig Stevenson

      Prem:

      There is no contest as far as power, for example India, which largely sustains itself on legumes, only produces 65% of the legumes it consumes. Without knowing it, every day, Indians rely on American power to merely eat. In 35 years, considering population growth, India is likely to only produce 30-35% of its legumes, GMO might be able to help that, as population uses more water, industrialization consumes more water, renewable energy sources consume more water, and less land is available due to burgeoning population.

      The question is, will the US still be ensuring sea lanes such that ships can bring india the legumes it eats, the oil and raw materials it consumes, the products it exports, because India, as China will still be large and lagely poor at the point. Development doesn't happen in a decade, and long term plans are needed to be engaged to overcome the serious challenges provided by over-population. The government can try to mandate, but people must have responsibility at the individual level to limit family sizes for the betterment of their families, communities, nations (and even world). Same story goes for the rest of South Asia, and the world in fact.

      Dr Hill, doesn't wuite go far enough. Because China didn't alter its trajectory more than a decade ago when it was asked, and although you believe they have been successful, they are dangerously imbalanced, it is not merely GDP growth, or infrastructure, one need to look at, it is quality of growth, structure of GDP, and actuary. China's economy, after the smoke clears, will likely be reconciled in history to be, at this point, 35-45% of the size it is stated to be. China has a very difficult path to traverse at present; even were this not to be resisted by elites (top 50 members of US congress worth 1.5 billion USd cumulatively, the peoples Congress 57 billion).

      So, this will also require the worlds attention, and their understanding, but we should not be assured that the world will wait. it will take 2 decades for China to restructure its GDP because of excess, instability, and that will only return it to 20% -30% lower consumption component then regional neighbors, 10% lower than regional neighbors, 20 years henceforth if successful, then regional neighbors experienced as the attempted to traverse the Middle Income curse. Furthermore, the model China implores, is not a US China dichotomy, it is a China versus the rest of the developing world, because elite control of the system, ownership of assets and policy creation, provide a heft and mass mobilization that no other country can mass. Further it is trade diversionary, not trade creative, thus deprives the more balanced global growth and development that would rationalize its investments in infrastructure and capacity.

      By fans of psot-modern social philosophies, this will attempted to be played a north South story, but of course, this is the Same story of State Led Capitalism, as experienced unsuccessfully each time in the past, especially where it was predicated on such a wide disparity between consumption and investment, as at present. Ironically, for reviewers like you, it mostly hurts other developing nations, as commodities merely lead to small bouts, or large bouts of Dutch Disease, and tend, due to impact of commodities on GDP, take the eyes of the prize of more balanced development and growth.

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