Saturday, April 19, 2014
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The Rise of an Insecure Giant

SEOUL – By the time China overtakes the United States as the world’s largest economy sometime in the next few years, it will have cemented its status as a major military power – one whose drive to assert itself strategically already is inspiring serious anxiety among its neighbors. But the truth is that China is a solitary, vulnerable rising power – one that faces potentially crippling domestic challenges.

China is currently encircled by US military installations and allies. While Asian countries are largely willing to maintain and even expand their economic ties with China, none (except North Korea, which depends on Chinese aid) is prepared to accept it as the region’s primary power. In fact, US allies like Indonesia and India have emerged as global players largely in response to China’s rise.

For its part, the US has shifted substantial military power toward Asia – with high-profile military deployments in Australia and the Philippines, and 60% of America’s naval capabilities now deployed in the region – and has enhanced its defense ties with Japan and South Korea. Moreover, it is helping to spearhead the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an economic and trade agreement that excludes China but includes many of its regional neighbors.

Against this background, US claims that its strategic rebalancing is not about containing China are not particularly convincing. Indeed, the US is pursuing a strategy of primacy in Asia, not a partnership between equals, and this, together with China’s own internal tensions, is undermining China’s ability to participate productively in regional and global forums.

As it stands, China lacks the confidence and experience needed to navigate the international arena. For example, it will not consider resolving in an international forum its dispute with Japan in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands in Japan). International law, China understands, is a double-edged sword that can be used against China in other territorial disputes, or even in its domestic affairs.

Similarly, China’s miserly initial offer of $100,000 in aid following the recent typhoon in the Philippines demonstrates how far the country is from being a mature member of the international community. As a Chinese official admitted at a recent seminar in Seoul, concepts like “regional order” have never been a part of the country’s political vocabulary.

With regard to Japan, China faces a conundrum. It is relatively content with Japan being a US security protectorate, because it fears the alternative: a Japan that expands its independent military reach. But US efforts to avoid precisely such an outcome cannot be good news for the Chinese, either, given that they entail a deepening of the bilateral defense relationship and support for upgrading Japan’s military capabilities.

In short, China’s regional exceptionalism has landed it in a strategic trap. It is unwilling to accept American leadership in Asia; but it is also reluctant to assume a more prominent role in promoting regional integration, fearing the concomitant pressure for more economic liberalization, adherence to international norms and rules, and a more transparent approach to its military buildup.

Even the proliferation of China’s economic ties in Africa, the Middle East, and South America may reflect vulnerability rather than imperial ambition. China’s voracious quest for new energy sources has already caused it to overstretch its limited ability to protect its sea lanes.

Despite bold reform plans – outlined at the recent Third Plenum of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – China’s prospects remain compromised by deep-rooted contradictions. For example, the inherent tension between the social change that development demands and the imperative of political stability required by authoritarian rule makes the current situation unsustainable in the long run.

Likewise, if the reform outline’s promise of a “decisive role” for the market ends up raising wages for poor Chinese, domestic demand might increase, but China will lose its main competitive advantage in international markets. This kind of dilemma has contributed to the fall of other developing-country dictatorships.

China understands that, for now, US strategic primacy is an immutable reality. Even so, its leaders’ strategic anxiety was on display at President Xi Jinping’s June meeting with US President Barack Obama, where he demanded, with the vagueness characteristic of Chinese officials, “mutual respect” and recognition of China’s “territorial integrity.”

The ostensibly trivial expression “mutual respect” actually modulates China’s true desire: a return to the Westphalian principle of non-interference in states’ domestic affairs, particularly their human-rights records. China has staunchly opposed Western efforts, whether in Syria or in North Korea, to circumvent this principle with doctrines like the “Responsibility to Protect.”

Similarly, Xi’s call for the US to respect its “territorial integrity” carries a specific and pointed message. In China’s view, the US has increasingly been encroaching on its rights with regard to Taiwan, while refusing to recognize China’s many other territorial and maritime claims against US allies in the South China Sea.

Experience demonstrates the dangers that can arise when vulnerable powers act independently. One need look no further than Israel, with its penchant for overreaction on security matters, or Iran, with its insistence on enriching uranium, to see what can happen when an isolated power bases its actions on a sense of existential vulnerability.

China’s rise is fraught with fear and uncertainty. Encirclement by a foreign power that threatens to encroach on what it considers to be its inalienable sovereign rights is bound to drive it to become a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo. Before China and the US overstep each other’s boundaries, they should abandon the concepts of “primacy” and “containment” in favor of a concert of Asian powers capable of resolving their differences.

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  1. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Deng Xiaoping had once famously said: "Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead - but aim to do something big."
    For decades China had been able to lay low and focus on its economy. It thrived thanks to Deng's economic reform. Yet its economic growth has also made it more assertive on the global stage and its polices take increasingly centre stage.
    Beijing dismisses concerns about high defence spending and its neighbours' wariness of its "peaceful rise" as baseless. As the world's second largest economy, not only it has responsibility thrust upon by the international community, it wants to flex its muscles as well, if its interests in the region are being under attack.
    Is China an "insecure giant"? No doubt its rise is vulnerable to envy and malevolence. It needs to reach out and spend more time on sorting out problems with its neighbours, instead of resorting to unilateral actions. Had it gone Deng's way, he would prefer a crouching giant, waiting for the time to ripe, before it rises.

  2. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    Arshad Muhammad,
    The West, including the United States, preaches human rights and dignity but fails to live up to the principles internationally and dometically in each country.

    However, as faf as international security is concerned in East Asia, China is a trouble-maker. She is the source of our headache.

    Can we read about Aafia Siddiqui online?

  3. CommentedArshad Muhammad

    When it comes to human rights, US record is also not enviable. In the name of anti-terrorism measures, Guantanamo bay jail is a scar on humanity. American and its allies media has created an impression as if America is a land of justice and freedom , but it is far from reality. A woman, Aafia Siddiqui was literally abducted from Pakistan by US forces, taken to Afghanistan, tried [yes tried] in the US courts and sentenced to 80 years jail for a conspiracy against US. If a state which can stoop so low , it has no moral authority to point fingers to other states like China. Remain satisfied, China is really a Giant and will remain secure. Worry about "secure" America which every day searches for a new adventure in the name of security- Earlier it was Vietnam and now it is Afghanistan..... Gets its soldiers killed and then draws out with humility.

  4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    This is a succinct but very good analysis. I agree but to the part "they should abandon the concepts of primacy and containment" in the last sentence. I do not understand what it should mean.

    John Lee/Why America will lead the 'Asian Century' is available onine at I found it equally enlightening.